Contract issue deepens probe of New York computers : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Contract issue deepens probe of computers By TOM PRECIOUS News Albany Bureau 5/12/00

ALBANY - A legislative panel investigating a flawed state computer system designed to track child abuse cases has questions about the awarding of a new contract to a Virginia firm brought in to fix the system's many problems. Maximus Inc. recently was awarded a $7.6 million contract by the Pataki administration to repair an assortment of problems in Connections, an increasingly expensive computer network overwhelmed by so many problems that some child welfare agencies stopped using it.

The action by the Pataki administration comes at a time when the Manhattan district attorney has begun an investigation into allegations that favoritism and corruption plagued a $104 million contract that Maximus initially won for a welfare-to-work program for Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's administration in New York City.

Last month, a state judge - saying the contract process had been "corrupted" - upheld a decision by the city comptroller to block the Maximus contract.

Assemblyman William L. Parment, D-Jamestown, chairman of the Assembly's Oversight and Investigation Committee, said he has a number of concerns about the decision to give Maximus the contract to repair Connections. Parment said his committee will examine the Maximus contract as part of its overall probe into Connections, a system whose costs have doubled beyond original projections - to more than $200 million.

"I do have questions about that procurement and about that firm, in particular, because Maximus was part of the original bid process for Connections. . . . Now they are brought back in five years later to (fix) the work of the two vendors originally employed?" Parment said.

Maximus lost the lucrative contract back in 1996, along with nearly a dozen other companies that tried to get a piece of the work.

Parment was to begin hearings today in Manhattan on Connections, 17 months after The Buffalo News first reported widespread problems that the computer system was creating for front-line social workers involved in investigating child abuse reports and tracking children in foster care and adoptive settings.

Testifying will be officials with child welfare agencies, who are expected to detail some of the problems Connections has created in trying to keep tabs on such items as child abuse reports.

A second hearing by the panel looking into the bidding process for Connections, whose contract was awarded in 1996 to an IBM subsidiary and Anderson Consulting, will be held in Albany later this month.

Meanwhile, the federal government has its own probe of Connections still under way. The investigation by the Department of Health and Human Services, which has since stopped paying its 75 percent share of Connections because of questions about the system's faults and the manner in which the contract was awarded originally, "is making progress in terms of the financial aspect of this project," said Michael Kharfen, an agency spokesman. He would not say when the probe was expected to be completed.

The agency has, in the past, said it had not seen anything quite as bad as New York's Connections system in other states that have computerized child welfare reporting.

The Pataki administration's Office of Children and Family Services, which runs Connections, did not return calls seeking comment in the past two days.

It was recently revealed that Maximus hired the father-in-law and a friend of the New York City welfare commissioner at the time it was trying to win the $104 million welfare-to-work contract. Giuliani has defended awarding the contract to Maximus.

In Albany, meanwhile, Maximus was working hard to secure a contract to fix Connections. Though valued at only $7.6 million, Connections is so troubled that Maximus could be in line for additional work when its contract runs out next year, according to sources.

To help in its obtaining of the contract, Maximus boasted to the Pataki administration of the abilities of William Gettman, a Maximus employee who the firm said would be part of the computer repair team if it won the contract. Gettman, it turns out, had been a senior state official in the Pataki administration and a member of the original selection committee that awarded the Connections contract in 1996.

Rachael Rowland, a Maximus spokeswoman, confirmed that the company did include Gettman's name in its bid proposal. She said Gettman's role was permitted under a 1998 state Ethics Commission rule that said he could appear before his old agency if two years had elapsed.

But, Rowland said, the company "generally tries to be as conservative as possible," so it removed Gettman from the team after questions about a possible conflict of interest were raised within the company. She said Gettman has since left the company.

Rowland added that the company would gladly meet with Parment if he has any concerns about the recent Maximus contract for repairing Connections. She said the controversy the company has run into in New York City is "an entirely separate situation" from its recent contract with the Pataki administration. She said that the New York City process "was open, fair and competitive" and that the judge's order upholding its cancellation is under appeal.

From the start, there were problems with Connections. It was due to be in place nearly three years ago, but now it could be years before the system is complete. Meanwhile, sources say, costs continue to rise.

Connections was designed to better coordinate the child services work of the state with 57 counties and 350 private agencies. For instance, about 1,000 calls are made daily to a central hotline with reports of child abuse.

Connections was supposed to then be used to route that information to, say, social workers in Buffalo, who would then follow up on the complaints. A whole series of other information, such as whether there had been past complaints involving an address, were to be included in the information.

Eventually, the system was to handle the vast range of child welfare services, such as storing information on prospective adoption families that could be available across county lines for use by front-line social workers.

Erie County officials said in the past that the system switched the names of alleged abusers with the victims. Social workers calling the homes of victims ended up inadvertently tipping off the alleged abusers.

Other problems included missing files, lost names and an inability to find cases of children with common last names. Today, many problems are still rampant across the system, sources say. Critics say much of the difficulty is because designers failed to talk with field workers to determine their needs.

For state taxpayers, Connections' problems could hit them in the wallet. If the federal government's probe goes against New York, the state could be responsible for tens of millions of dollars in unanticipated costs. At the very least, Washington has said the state failed to obtain approval for two parts of the system's contract, totaling more than $60 million.

-- Martin Thompson (, May 13, 2000

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