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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Procurement controversies series: Ohio. Time after time...

Ohio awards millions in unbid IT contracts, sidestepping state policy, analysts’ protests
Time after time, state purchasing analysts warned that the pricey pending contracts were improper. “This position was unbid” ... ”No competitive procurement was issued” ... “The rates seem to be excessive” ... “The agency did not complete any competitive process” ... ”This position could have been filled ... with rates at least $63 less per hour.” The supervisors also repeatedly disregarded the agency’s own purchasing policy and sidestepped approval of the bipartisan state Controlling Board that serves as a check on spending on non-competitive contracts.

And, time after time, their superiors at the Ohio Department of Administrative Services overrode those concerns to award millions of dollars in no-bid, information-technology contracts, frequently paying more than $200 an hour — often to a company employing one-time Administrative Services executives, a Dispatch investigation found. As a result, Ohioans likely have paid much more than if routine competitive purchasing procedures had been used by the agency with the responsibility to “guide the use of resources on behalf of the public trust.”

Revolving door in reverse:

The high cost of contracting consultants' employees is underscored by a pair of instances in which the consultants later were hired by the state to perform similar duties — but at a sharply lower cost to taxpayers.

Gregory Jackson, one of Davis’ predecessors as the state’s chief information officer for five years (Davis was a 20-year agency employee who was named chief information officer in 2009 and became a deputy director two years later), left his state job in 2005. He was employed by Advocate beginning in September 2012, and through an unbid contract approved by Administrative Services, immediately became interim chief information officer at the Ohio Department of Medicaid. The company received more than $913,000, charging $218 an hour for Jackson’s full-time services until May 2015, when he departed both Advocate and the Medicaid department.

Jackson then returned to the state 10 months later as a full-time state employee in a similar job as head of information services at the Department of Job and Family Services. His hourly state salary of $67.31 — which yields $140,000 a year — represents less than a third of what Advocate was paid for his services. Advocate was paid $453,400 in its last contract for the services of Jackson, who listed a salary of $180,000 a year at Advocate on his state employment application. Jackson declined a request for an interview.

Peter McGeoch, Administrative Services’ IT director in the 1990s and an Advocate employee, worked at the Ohio Department of Higher Education through an unbid contract. His duties included advising Chancellor John Carey on IT issues. Records show McGeoch was hired for $150 an hour, for a total of $77,400, to work for three months ending in September 2016. A spokesman for Carey said McGeoch continued his work at $150 an hour under an extension with Advocate before departing in January. Advocate also was paid $456,000 in 2014 and 2015 for general consulting services provided by McGeoch.

A spokesman for the agency said that it did nothing wrong because its awarding of no-bid contracts is lawful under a waiver of competitive selection granted by the Controlling Board for the past 45 years. But the spokesman could not point to any law or another written policy permitting the awarding of contracts, even with the waiver, without first obtaining at least three price quotes from competing suppliers, as required by the department’s own policy.

The Department of Administrative Services oversees or handles most state purchasing. It also serves as the state property manager and human-resources and payroll office. Its Office of Information Technology handles most software and computer-system contracts for state agencies. The state spends more than $930 million a year on those agencies’ computer and information-technology needs. State agencies generally are required to obtain Controlling Board approval of no-bid or single-source contracts in excess of $50,000 per vendor per year. Last year, a department purchasing analyst pointed out a need to “help reduce the $75 million spent on consultants ... who have since 2006 received several million dollars in unbid work,” writing that some tasks could have been done at lower cost by other companies.

Administrative Services has not submitted any no-bid information-technology contracts for board approval during the past four years, records show. Top agency officials, such as Director Robert Blair and Chief Information Officer Stuart Davis, were not made available for interviews requested by The Dispatch. “The complexity of this subject matter does not lend itself to an interview,” wrote department spokesman Tom Hoyt.

“The majority of the identified (no-bid) contracts are for managing large-scale, complex IT projects and programs that span several years,” Hoyt said. “Items such as a pen or pencil can be compared or purchased in a like manner, apples-to-apples, while IT consulting involving specialized skills, knowledge and experience is difficult to compare in the same way.”

Among the findings from The Dispatch’s seven-month investigation:
‒ Advocate, a Columbus family of companies that has received in excess of $14 million in multiple unbid contracts since mid-2011, employs several former Department of Administrative Services IT executives who once worked closely with the state’s current highest-ranking IT officials.

‒ Stonyhurst Consulting, based in the Washington, D.C., exurb of Middleburg, Virginia, was handed more than $3 million in unbid IT contracts — again, many over the protest of Administrative Service analysts — that included pay rates of up to $250 an hour.

‒ Advocate also charged hourly rates exceeding $200 an hour. In fact, when a couple of its employees transferred to the state payroll, their wages were less than a third of what Advocate had charged the state for similar services.

‒ Despite insisting the no-bid contracts were proper, agency officials canceled some and sought price quotes following the protests of purchasing analysts. However, department leaders gave some contracts to Advocate and Stonyhurst anyway — even though they were the highest-priced.
The unbid contracts uncovered by The Dispatch were awarded without complying with an Administrative Services policy that since 2008 has required the agency to obtain at least three price quotes from competing suppliers, a process intended to save tax dollars by yielding lower prices through competition. The quotes are to come from pre-negotiated and pre-approved “state term schedules” that would-be contractors file with the state.

Hoyt said that policy is overridden by the agency’s receipt of a waiver of competitive selection each biennium from the Controlling Board, which consists of six legislators and a Kasich appointee. The waiver permits the granting of unbid contracts for specialized work and “to provide continuity of services,” Hoyt said. “It allows for a judgment call to be made by DAS.”

Addressing the purchasing analysts’ objections to sole-source contracts, Hoyt said they did not understand that the work was so specialized that it could not be obtained through the so-called staff augmentation contract at lower hourly rates. Analysts periodically have questioned supervisor justifications for some no-bid contracts, disagreeing that the work called for specialized expertise.

On June 4, 2015, acquisition analyst Andrew Miller flagged a $56,250 contract for Stonyhurst. “No competitive process has been completed,” he wrote. “I would recommend that the requester seek Controlling Board approval.” Davis responded that it was “not realistic” to seek the Controlling Board’s OK because the state fiscal year was ending June 30. Davis noted that the contract request was submitted in late April, but documents show the contract did not enter the state-vetting system until June 3. The contract called for one consultant to work 250 hours, at $225 an hour, during June, an average of 62.5 hours a week.

The Controlling Board waiver contains no language overriding Administrative Services’ three-price-quotes policy, which its own employees have written must be followed. The agency’s 127-page state procurement manual does not list any process for directly hiring “specialized” consultants through no-bid contracts. An internal department document also states that sole-source and no-quote contracts cannot be awarded in the manner used by the agency.

Opaque "transparency"

Most of the documents about the transactions are not easily accessible by the public. Administrative Services officials took more than four months to fulfill much of The Dispatch’s request for public records concerning vendors’ contracts. Some records still were being turned over last week — after nearly seven months.

A spokesperson for Kasich, who appoints the head of the Department of Administrative Services, referred questions to the agency.

The husband-and-wife team of Steven Zielenski and Jonelle St. John worked for a state IT contractor called Top5 before forming their own company, Stonyhurst Consulting. State purchasing analysts complained that the company’s first contract in 2015 for $128,100 to help with IT optimization efforts was unbid. Most of the company’s subsequent contracts also were flagged as “unbid” — a total of nearly $3.2 million in all.

Asked for comment, Zielenski responded in an email: “Stonyhurst LLC maintains strict confidentiality with respect to all our clients and our business relationships with them.”

See related article, It can be a tortured path to get state records.
Note that almost every article I reference in this blog gets sliced and diced. Here, for instance, there is much detail that has been left out and many bits of the article have been re-arranged to suit a didactic, rather than newsworthy, intent, as a case study of procurement law and (mal)practice.  

You are advised, therefore, always to go to the article at the provided link for the straight scoop.

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