When the City of Tacoma hired TUI Consulting to help install its new computer system, it got a lot more than just a consultant. It also gained a new corporate citizen and a close partner.
The relationship started before the city awarded a contract to TUI to help install SAP computer software across city government. TUI began working on the project before it secured the deal, and then – days before the City Council voted on the contract – announced it was moving its world headquarters from Melbourne, Australia, to Tacoma.
The city’s marketing staff pounced on the June 2002 announcement and touted it as evidence that Tacoma must be doing something right if a respected, international computer company was interested in moving here.
Pleased as they were by the news, though, top city officials – including Tacoma Public Utilities Director Mark Crisson and computer project manager Karen Larkin – said TUI’s decision to move its headquarters to Tacoma had no bearing on the company’s selection as the city’s computer partner.
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About six months later, the partnership ran into controversy when Crisson, Corpuz and Larkin accepted a first-class, TUI-paid trip to visit computer-installation sites in Australia and New Zealand.
After the group left and questions of conflict of interest emerged, the Public Utility board voted to pay $24,000 for all of Crisson’s expenses and half of Larkin’s. The city officials say the trip was valuable in learning more about the system.
TUI paid for Corpuz’s tab.
Controversy isn’t new for TUI founder and CEO Ballu Khan.
His company is being sued by Singapore’s largest electricity retailer, SP Services, for problems related to TUI’s implementation of a computer system there.
The utility said it encountered large-scale billing problems beginning in January 2000, eventually affecting about 144,000 of the 1.2 million electricity accounts, The Straits Times newspaper in Singapore reported. At one point, the utility had unpaid accounts totaling $800 million, the paper reported.
TUI has denied the claims and filed a countersuit for $3 million, blaming SP Services for the problems.
Then-TUI vice president Rob Jackson said the utility failed to provide proper resources during the project, leading to delays. The utility then ignored repeated warnings about the impact of the delays, Jackson said.
Khan told The News Tribune the Singapore lawsuit is a normal business dispute.
Khan has found controversy in Fiji, too, where he is part of a joint venture to implement SAP software for the government’s Native Land Trust Board. Critics complained the project was too expensive and noted that Khan paid to send two government officials to Tacoma to look at the city’s SAP implementation.
Khan downplayed his involvement in the venture and dismissed the Fiji controversy as “politics.”
Like Crisson and Larkin, Khan denied there was any quid pro quo between locating his company in Tacoma and the city’s awarding him the computer installation contract.
He responded angrily to questions about the move and Ray Corpuz’s role in either the awarding of the city’s contract or working at TUI.
After Corpuz was fired as Tacoma city manager, he went to work at TUI.
“We’ve done nothing wrong whatsoever,” Khan said. “I have a business to run. This is not shady.”
Khan said Corpuz had nothing to do with the city’s decision to award the computer contract to TUI Consulting, adding that he didn’t know Corpuz “from a bar of soap” before the contract was awarded.
TUI has offered two accounts of Corpuz’s duties. Corpuz wouldn’t speak with The News Tribune.
But unless he worked directly on the City of Tacoma’s contract, there’s nothing in the city’s ethics code that would prevent Corpuz from taking a job with TUI, said assistant city attorney Steve Victor. And there’s no evidence that Corpuz worked on the Tacoma project for TUI, he said.
State Auditor Brian Sonntag offered no opinion on Corpuz’s work for TUI, but he said, in general, that public officials should think carefully before leaving a government post for a position with a company with which their agency had done business.
Washington law prohibits state workers prohibits such a move for one year, he noted. The law wouldn’t apply to a former city worker like Corpuz.
And even if there’s no prohibition against it, there’s a question of appearance, Sonntag said.
“Government’s credibility with the public is at an all-time low,” he said. “We need to look at these things through the public’s lens.”
Khan couldn’t say when Corpuz quit showing up at the TUI offices, but by last November the relationship had apparently ended, he said.
His account of what Corpuz did for him differs from what a TUI executive told The News Tribune in October 2003.
Jackson, while still vice president, said Corpuz wasn’t on the TUI payroll but was using the space to help coordinate a program to provide underprivileged students with computer skills. Corpuz had a “desk and about three phones,” Jackson said, but “It’s probably better to say he is working with us.”
When asked about Corpuz’s role late last year, Khan, an avid rugby enthusiast, told The News Tribune that Corpuz was actually helping the newly relocated company learn how to become involved in the South Sound rugby scene, schools and charitable causes.
For example, in Fiji, where Khan is from and still does business, a $1,000 donation might seem generous, but in Tacoma it might be viewed as insulting, Khan said.
Now that the company is more established in Tacoma, it no longer needs Corpuz for that kind of help, Khan said.
But it’s also sensing a change in the business environment that might prompt another move, Khan said.
He and his employees share a commitment to their adopted home, Khan said, and they all worked long and hard to make the city’s computer project a success. But criticism of the computer project, especially in the pages of The News Tribune, is souring the business climate, he said.
“I’m not going to sit back and see The News Tribune and the city tarnish my reputation unfairly,” Khan said.
Khan said he welcomes an outside review of the computer system and is eager for the paper to finish investigating it.
“We have to get closure on this before it gets ugly and somebody gets hurt,” he told reporters.
Jason Hagey: 253-597-8542
Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659