Houston contract under fire

A month after the city of Houston awarded a $9.5 million contract to provide free computer software to more than 3 million residents, city officials are dealing with allegations that the procurement appears to have been "rigged."

Under the SimHouston contract, Internet Access Technologies Inc. (IAT) will provide free desktop software to all city employees and residents (see box).

But in recent weeks, at least one city council member has raised questions about the procurement process that former Houston chief information officer Denny Piper, who resigned last month, oversaw.

After reviewing the SimHouston request for proposals, councilman Bruce Tatro believes Piper planned on using IAT's SimHouston software services weeks before the bidding deadline of Dec. 7, 2001. "The whole RFP process was a sham," Tatro said.

Tatro claims that the RFP "was written in a way where only one company could respond." IAT was the only company to place a bid.

According to Tatro, Piper was like a "kid in a candy store that wanted to do all these neat [information technology] things, disregarding necessary procedures."

Piper, who said he had been planning to leave city government since the beginning of the year, said that the RFP process in no way was tailored, and all the proper procedures were followed.

Ray Davis, chief technology officer and founder of IAT, also denied allegations of an unfair contract deal. "The bid process was done impeccably," he said. The reason for the lack of competition was that "no one else has this product, so you're not going to get another bid."

Tatro has no credible proof that IAT was involved in any wrongdoing, Davis said.

Smoking Gun?

Tatro said that the project's marketing plan speaks for itself.

A third draft of a marketing rollout plan, developed by Weeks & Co., a marketing and public relations firm in Austin, Texas, was completed Nov. 14, three weeks before the proposal deadline. Tatro said that the marketing plan contained mock press releases naming IAT as the projected winner of the contract.

"On January XX, IAT procured the RFP...from the city of Houston, beating out XX, XX, XX number of companies. (Will insert this information once procured)," reads one draft document found in the plan.

According to Weeks officials, the information came from "background material" contained within the marketing plan. Its intent was to provide information to Piper, the mayor and other city officials about how the program came to be and was not intended for public viewing. The firm also said that it did not draft any press materials before January.

Piper resigned as Houston CIO a week after city council members in June voted 8-7 to award the five-year, $9.5 million contract to IAT.

"I left for a great opportunity in San Diego" as county chief technology officer, Piper said. He added that the SimHouston contract was supposed to go before the council in January, which would have eliminated any suspicion of his departure days after the vote. He said he also had been discussing his future with San Diego officials months before the council vote.

Piper's replacement, Richard Lewis, said that his new job as CIO is to implement the contract that the city council approved. "Mr. Piper became aware of this technology and realized it would be a good investment," he said. "However, his marketing strategy shows his lack of experience in government procurement."

The city's Office of Inspector General and the Harris County District Attorney's Governmental Affairs Bureau are investigating the contract proceedings to determine whether the city broke any laws.

Mayor Lee Brown and several other council members said they would continue to support the SimHouston program because it is beneficial to the citizens of Houston.

Piper said that the bottom line is, "the SimHouston project is a good project for the city of Houston. The city should be proud that they are the first to implement such a project because it is the city's project, not a Denny Piper project," he said.


Access for all

In the SimHouston project, Internet Access Technologies Inc. will provide the city its SimDesk and SimMedia software, enabling Houston city employees and residents — potentially 3 million users — to download and use the company's software for free to create, edit and store documents online. Users would access the information using library cards from any Internet-ready location.

SimDesk software includes word processing, spreadsheets, calendar and contact management, e-mail, file management, backup utilities and remote printing applications. SimMedia includes applications for presentation graphics, instant messaging and videoconferencing.


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