When it comes to comparing apples to apples –- or any other kind of produce -- Peter Testa knows his stuff.
His family-owned business has been supplying fruits and vegetables to Chicago restaurants and schools for nearly a century.
But when Testa tried to take a bite out of a Cook County contract he said what he found is rotten to the core.
"Thirty days later we're waiting for the contract -- waiting for the contract and thirty days later we find out Finer foods got the bid and we're like, wait a minute they were like $10,000 higher than us when the bid was open how did they get the bid?" Testa said.
How indeed. But unraveling this Cook County caper might take the detective skills of a Sherlock Holmes.
It starts with a locked box outside the County Board chamber where businesses drop their sealed bids.
Testa and two other companies were competing for a contract to supply fresh produce for the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.
When Testa's bid was opened on Dec. 3, it was the lowest by $10,000.
But somewhere between the locked box and the county's final decision, the numbers for one of his produce competitors -- Finer Foods -- got sliced and diced.
"We looked at the bid and we saw that several of the numbers on the bid were changed…” Testa explained. “They were written over, totals were different."
And this is where the plot thickens. Finer Foods has a long history of winning county contracts.
And even though its bid went into the locked box at $156,000 -- three weeks later the numbers were changed and Finer won the contract.
"I think ours was originally 148 and theirs was 156,” Testa said. “Now theirs is 146 and ours is still 148.”
So how does a bid drop by $10,000 after it’s opened? Easy, said Cook County purchasing director Carmen Triche-Colvin -- Finer made a whopping math mistake.
“There were math errors in the contract,” Triche-Colvin said.
In fact the contract is a mess -- riddled with scribbles and scratches -- numbers crossed out and written over.
To protect against fraud, under county law, any change has to be initialed by a commissioner when the bid is opened.
On Finer's contract some of the changes are, but others are not. On some changes there are no initials.
"We're not in the business of manipulating any documents. We accept the bid proposals as they are submitted by the individual vendors," Triche-Colvin said.
Triche-Colvin wouldn’t give FOX Chicago News a copy of the original bid, but allowed us to take pictures of some of the pages.
And that's where we found a clue worthy of Sherlock Holmes himself. We call it the case of the disappearing initials.
"The only initials that were placed on the document were Commissioner Murphy on the day of the bid opening," Triche-Colvin said.
And there they were. But not on Testa’s document.
"I don't know where that came from but it's not on this one," he said.
In late February, Testa acquired his own copy of Finer Foods’ bid through the Freedom of Information Act. Mysteriously the commissioner's initials are missing on a key item that had been changed to reduce the amount of Finer's bid.
“(That) certainly wasn't on this copy when we got it. And this is a copy of the original document,” Testa said. When asked what he thinks when he looks at the two documents, he said: “Magic -- maybe it's magic. I don't know."
Which turns this story into a whodunit. If Commissioner Murphy initialed the change when the bid was opened in December, why doesn't it appear on the copy the county gave Testa in February?
Commissioner Joan Murphy didn't want to talk on camera but said she can't remember signing the document and isn't sure if they're her initials.
and here's another clue something isn't right. There are specific rules about how the contract should be marked once it's opened.
"If the bidder writes in black, we write in blue. If they write in blue we write in black," Triche-Colvin explained.
So why is the commissioner’s initial in black ink in one spot, while on the very next page in blue. Was she using two different pens?
Cook County Commissioner Robert Steele said Testa's raised enough concerns to re-open the contract.
"We ought to pull a full investigation on that contract and make sure we do what's right with the Inspector General's office to make sure that's corrected immediately," Steele said.
Testa said all he wants is a level playing field.
He said: "Somebody should look at it and say this is not right. It's got to go. Somebody's got to be held responsible. Somebody did something. I don't know who it is, but somebody did something.”