Bellone official failed to follow Suffolk procurement policy

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone talks about his Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone talks about his just-released county budget at his office in the Dennision Buiding in Hauppauge. (Sept. 20, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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A senior Bellone official committed $70,000 in county work to a leading Long Island engineering firm before legislative approval and without following Suffolk's procurement policy.

Information Technology Commissioner Donald Rodgers' attempt to secure the project for the firm violated Suffolk County procurement policy and flies in the face of established practice, according to interviews with a dozen current and former county employees. The move has also drawn objections from at least two legislators, Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) and Minority Leader John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset).

The commitment to Mineola-based Bowne Management Systems Inc. is contained in a state grant application filed by Rodgers' office last year. Rodgers secured the $69,825 award last summer for a project to assess the county's information technology disaster management systems across seven departments.

A resolution to formally accept the grant and approve funds for the project is before the county legislature.

Rodgers began working with the private firm in anticipation of the State Archives-administered grant at least as far back as February 2013, according to documents obtained by Newsday, with Bowne helping write the county's grant application and submitting its work proposal, a company profile and references in an attached supporting document.

On Thursday, the county said following approval from the legislature the project would proceed but that Bowne would be ineligible for the work "because they assisted in the preparation of the application." County spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter could not say when that decision was made.

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Correspondence between Rodgers and Bowne officials show the commissioner continued to pledge the $70,000 project work to Bowne even after the expiration of a technology contract that the county says enabled the firm to prepare the state grant.

In an email exchange early last September, two months after that contract expired, a Bowne senior analyst wrote Rodgers inquiring whether the state had awarded the grants, noting the firm wrote the grant application "relatively quickly" and suggesting a meeting to refine the proposal before the county contracted with Bowne.

Rodgers, who reports to Deputy County Executive Tom Melito -- himself vice president at Bowne Management Systems from early 2008 until he joined the county in March 2012 -- responded: "I will keep you posted and look forward to working with Bowne on this project."

 

Contract expired

On Thursday, County Attorney Dennis Brown said if an existing consultant is used to draft a grant application, the consultant would be prohibited from carrying out the work. "That's because we would want the work bid out and we would want potential bidders on an equal footing in line with best procurement practices," Brown said.

A day later Brown said that he believed Bowne's assistance in preparing the grant application fell within the reach of the existing contract -- and that the firm could have done the project work under that pre-existing, bid-out contract.

However, that contract -- for which Bowne was one of several vendors cleared to do the work -- had expired June 30, 2013. Baird-Streeter said the project work would now be procured either using a state contract or by using a request for proposal.

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Melito and Rodgers did not return calls for comment. Bowne Management Systems senior analyst/project manager Jim Hall, who worked on the grant application, declined to say last week whether Bowne had begun work on the proposed $70,000 project. "I should not comment on that . . . I shouldn't get involved, I'm sorry. I know this is very touchy."

The March 2013 grant application states explicitly: "Bowne Management Systems Inc. (BMS) has been selected to provide consulting services for the project." It makes no mention of other potential firms, or quotes.

Suffolk County procurement law requires an advertised request for proposal for any consultant project of more than $25,000, unless there is a waiver. This process occurs after the legislature signs off on a project and its funding.

Projects are to be awarded by a separate RFP committee that includes the legislature's presiding officer, the county executive and the head of the department requesting the RFP -- or their representatives. The rules were tightened in 2010 specifically to strengthen oversight of consultants' contracts.

Gregory said he knew of no RFP for the project. Neither was an RFP waiver granted by the county's waiver committee. "I am concerned that the county's procurement process may not be being followed to the letter of the law," Gregory said.

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Kennedy said whether the funding came as a state grant made no difference and that he also had concerns accepted county practice may have been skirted. "State money or not, the county needs to follow its own procurement laws," he said.

 

'Existing vendor'

The grant application says: "If this grant is awarded, DoIT [the information technology department] intends to award a contract to one of our existing vendors, Bowne Management Systems, Inc. in compliance with our Local Government's Procurement Requirements (LGPR). Therefore DoIT did not use an RFQ or RFP, but Bowne was asked to submit a proposal for the work."

Elsewhere it says: "DoIT believes the consultant's quoted fee to be competitive for this project" and argues consultant services are required to "engage individuals . . . and other skills . . . the DoIT does not have in-house."

In an interview, Chris Ward, assistant commissioner of State Archives, said ordinarily three quotes were necessary for consultant work above $10,000. But this requirement was dropped if the local government can demonstrate the selected vendor has been chosen according to the local government's standard requirements, as had occurred in Suffolk's case, she said.

Asked what verifying the state does to ensure applicants are in compliance with its own procurement rules, Ward said: "We don't examine further beyond the appropriate signatures from the county on their application."

Rodgers signed off on the application on the day of the state deadline -- March 1, 2013. The money was awarded in late summer, two months after Bowne's existing contract had expired.

Hall, Bowne's senior analyst/project manager, fully anticipated the firm would be doing the work in the attached work proposal he compiled for the application, headed "Quote to Develop a Records-focused Disaster Management Plan."

Following up with Rodgers last summer, Hall emailed, saying, "We wrote the grant application relatively quickly and both you and we (Bowne) will want to meet to discuss and refine (if needed) the scope, deliverables and schedule one more time."

In the same Sept. 6 email, Hall laid out his understanding of the next steps, including "Suffolk County contracts with Bowne." The email concludes that if the plan could be done by early 2014, "then you can apply for a follow-on implementation grant from State Archives. Thanks -- Jim".

Rodgers was hired by the Bellone administration in April 2012 from Nassau County, where he had worked for years in IT -- first as a consultant and then as a full-time county employee.

His appointment, along with his advocacy for a new multiyear, $5 million software deal with computer giant Microsoft, was the subject of a grand jury subpoena served on the legislature from the Suffolk County district attorney's office on Feb. 19.

The resolution on the consulting contract has been assigned to the education and technology committee, which is due to meet April 22, a week before the matter could go before a vote at the legislature's general meeting.

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