Twenty-five cents out of every monthly cell and landline phone bill in Washington go to an obscure state office at Camp Murray, just outside Lakewood, charged with improving 911 service around the state.
More than $700,000 of that money was used for a major technology project that involved three years of work. But the office, the Enhanced 911 Unit, has nothing to show for that now-canceled project.
At the center of the effort was a purchase from a company called SAS – a purchase that managed to evade both an examination of its effectiveness and a competitive search for the right equipment.
Early concerns about those omissions went unheeded – all of which helped push the unit’s leader out the door and raised questions about oversight by his bosses in the state Military Department.
“The SAS experience is instructive in that it reveals how inattentive upper management and a failure to vet and structure an initiative can lead to poor project management and affect the stewardship of public funds,” Jim Mullen, who oversees the unit as director of the department’s Emergency Management Division, wrote in an internal review this year.
Reports from the review and a separate 2010-2011 investigation by an outside consultant, both obtained by The News Tribune through public-records requests, call attention to apparent ethical lapses surrounding the project. The outside consultant alleged that ethically questionable relationship with contractors extended beyond SAS.
The Military Department says the exits of several key officials from the unit have brought change and that new safeguards will prevent money from being wasted on ill-conceived technology projects in the future.
“This hasn’t ever happened before,” Mullen said. “It’s unacceptable to happen once. It’s unthinkable we would let it ever happen again.”
Counties have their own local, 70-cent monthly tax on phone lines to fund their 911 call centers. If they need more money for improvements, they often tap into the tax revenue from the state’s 25 cents, which brings in more than $23 million a year. Small counties, especially, rely on the state fund.
The state 911 unit approves the purchases. Counties file requests for state reimbursements along with monthly reports on the volume of 911 calls by emailing spreadsheets to officials in the unit.
The unit is responsible for the time-consuming monthly work of consolidating data from those spreadsheets into a single central spreadsheet and passing information back and forth with counties by email.
It would be simpler and more efficient, officials have long figured, if there were a single central online database that state and county officials could all update.
Lorri Gifford, a program manager in the unit, came back from a conference of 911 officials in 2008 with a possible solution. A former North Carolina official she knew from their work together on the Hurricane Floyd disaster response in 1999 was now working for SAS, and had made a presentation at the conference about the company’s products.
Gifford’s superiors would later allege that she had had an undisclosed intimate relationship with that SAS employee. Mullen’s review in April concluded that Gifford had appeared to act more as SAS’s “agent” than as a state employee.
But in 2008, agency officials didn’t hesitate.
The 911 office, then led by Bob Oenning, the state’s Enhanced 911 administrator, brought in SAS for a demonstration of what its Financial Management Solution could do about their problem.
Officials asked SAS to quote them a price. They didn’t consider other companies or go out to bid, which would have opened the door to competitors and required a technical examination that might have caught flaws in the plan.
Oenning said that’s because they learned from what was then called the state Department of Information Services that it already had a standing agreement with SAS. “They’re the ones that told us they had a contract with SAS; use it,” he said.
But a consultant, Betsy BeMiller, later found that DIS didn’t have the details of the project. Mullen’s review found that SAS “appeared to groom Gifford” on the strategy of using the DIS contract.
Some apparently questioned the details, including the Military Department’s finance officials, Rick Woodruff and Laura McPherson, who was Tacoma’s budget officer at the time of her death this year.
“I said, you should be going through a competitive process for that,” Woodruff recalled. “Then later on they ended up going through what was then DIS,” which he said was not unusual.
Their worries were expressed to the 911 unit but never made it to Mullen and other top management, Mullen wrote.
Mullen approved the quoted price of $416,000 for a software license, maintenance, implementation and training.
PULLING THE PLUG
One staffer, Jacqueline Randall, later told the investigator she had advised co-workers that she was worried the product they were buying would need a lot of work to be customized. Indeed, the software ended up requiring major customization, which was done by a SAS subcontractor, Cost Technology.
SAS made many of the key decisions setting project requirements and timelines for finishing tasks, Mullen found.
The company’s product did show promise. Mullen and one of the officials who tried out the software in a pilot project, Skamania County Undersheriff Dave Cox, both said it appeared to be the answer they needed.
But Robert Ezelle, who replaced Oenning as head of the 911 unit, did an analysis that found the ongoing costs outweighed the benefits.
Those costs included future programming expenses every time policies changed for reimbursing counties. They also included the use of a server at DIS, deemed necessary because security worries that had been unaddressed before awarding the contract kept the Military Department from housing a server for the project at Camp Murray.
Mullen pulled the plug late last year. Through January of this year, including staff time and maintenance, costs had ballooned to $709,048.
SAS spokesman Trent Smith said his company “did its best to make the E911 budget planning project a success for Washington. We met the project objectives, including the launch of a pilot project. We regret the project ended before full implementation.”
The manual work of updating spreadsheets continues. Ezelle said it’s a smoother process now thanks to better coordination and training, but it’s still a significant portion of one employee’s duties, with others contributing.
A reprimand of Gifford in September faulted her for telling the SAS employee about the 911 office’s internal investigation. It said she “engaged in unprofessional and overly casual relationships with SAS personnel” while failing to adopt a “professional oversight role,” Maj. Gen. Gary Magonigle wrote.
He singled out her failure to disclose a “previous intimate relationship” with the SAS employee as a violation of agency policy and ethics law.
Smith says SAS believes its representatives acted appropriately.
Gifford remains under investigation by the state Executive Ethics Board.
She was reassigned outside the 911 unit to work on plans for post-disaster recovery, while also doing some work related to debris from the Japanese tsunami floating toward the West Coast. She remains in the emergency division at the same pay. She declined to comment for this story through Military Department spokesman Rick Patterson, who said Gifford is “doing a good job and everybody’s pleased with her contribution.”
The department placed Oenning on paid leave in late 2010 for a disciplinary investigation, but by the time the investigation was over, Oenning had retired. He said he left to deal with his cancer.
Other officials in the unit also are gone. One supervisor, Bruce Baardson, took what Mullen described as a voluntary demotion, moving to a different part of the division as an emergency operations officer monitoring for potential emergencies. Another, Dave Irwin, who had clashed with Oenning and who also had been placed on an alternate assignment pending an investigation, left for the private sector.
The consultant determined Oenning violated contracting guidelines and didn’t exercise proper leadership. Mullen concluded Oenning should have insisted that a more experienced employee than Gifford handle the project, and should have done more to resolve conflicts between workers in his unit.
But Mullen also put some blame on oversight from Emergency Management, including from his then-assistant director, Tim Clark, and himself. “I missed some opportunities early to ask more questions,” Mullen said. “I regret it, but I did it.”
HISTORY OF PROBLEMS
The database project showcased problems that had been building for a while in the 911 unit and to some degree in the Emergency Management Division more broadly.
Maj. Gen. Timothy Lowenberg, who ran the Military Department until his retirement this year, cited a “permissive attitude and lack of accountability that seems to pervade the EMD division” in dismissing Clark over separate problems involving Emergency Management workers’ use of technology for personal purposes. In September, the department settled with Clark, turning the dismissal into a resignation and paying him more than $21,000 plus three months of back pay.
In the 911 office itself, consultant BeMiller found poor morale was widespread, much of it because of personality conflicts between middle managers.
Oenning defends himself and the office. “Internal tensions only count to a certain point when you’re getting your job done extremely well,” he said, arguing that other states around the country looked to Washington as a model for standardizing 911 systems statewide. “I made it the best program in the country.”
BeMiller interviewed dozens of public employees and uncovered a parade of allegations of inappropriate behavior, including sexually suggestive and racist remarks.
She called it a “sexually charged work environment” fueled by intimate relationships among people in the office and those they worked with, including county officials.
Staff told the consultant that sellers of 911-related equipment took them out for food, drinks and entertainment, such as ball games. County 911 officials told her one company selling computer dispatching equipment under the brand Positron often provided alcohol when county and state officials gathered.
The close ties might have paid off for the company, now known as Intrado. Several county coordinators told BeMiller they felt pressure from state 911 staff to buy from the company over competitors.
The “vast majority” of Washington’s 39 counties have purchased equipment from Intrado rather than competitors, BeMiller wrote. A 2009 report lists 28 of the counties as having Intrado equipment.
Jim Quackenbush, the executive director of Thurston 911 Communications which uses equipment from a competitor – Cassidian Communications – said many of the local dispatch centers bought the equipment long ago, casting doubt on the idea of influence from the office.
Intrado declined comment.
Oenning said the problems in the office were overblown and said he was pushed out because he had frequently disagreed with top management in the Military Department.
“There’s always been somewhat of a jealousy around 911,” Oenning said, “because quite frankly, 911 had money.”
He said he defended the tax revenue from phone lines against attempts to use it for purposes not directly related to 911 services. He also said Lowenberg didn’t like that Oenning had accumulated influence in national circles of 911 officials. Lowenberg couldn’t be reached for comment.
The 911 office used to run somewhat independently from the rest of Emergency Management, Mullen’s review said. He has taken steps to rein in that independence, merging the unit with a Homeland Security unit that deals with federal grant funding, under control of that unit’s manager, Ezelle.
It even has a new physical location in a different Camp Murray building. Leaders say it is a different place now in more ways than one.
“I take our ethical responsibilities to the state and to our citizens extremely seriously, and just communicated very, very strongly to the staff what our parameters are and (that) we will behave in an ethical manner,” Ezelle said. “The staff has clearly taken that to heart.”
The Military Department also has put in place new procedures for technology projects with multiple layers of review aimed at ensuring greater oversight. Furthermore, all contracts need approval from the department’s finance office.
Many who diagnosed problems before say they have faded.
Robert Allen, the Klickitat County Emergency Management operations manager whose account of vendor Intrado picking up a hefty bar bill for 911 officials was cited by BeMiller, says he doesn’t see the kind of wining and dining by companies that he used to.
“I honestly believe there was some housecleaning and because of that investigation things have changed significantly,” he said.
Quackenbush said the new-look staff seems to be working together instead of independently, and with more oversight, though there are downsides to the turnover.
“They used to be capable of doing a lot more technically than they can do, but I think that’s strictly due to the learning curve,” he said. “I think they’re on the right track and I think the office will once again reach a point where they are very functional.”