NYC's Computer-System Cash-Dump Disaster

New York City threw away a mountain of cash over a new computer system. Now, finally, someone is going to pay.

In fairness, the current comptroller, John Liu, has aggressively raised questions about CityTime. He was the one who persuaded Mayor Bloomberg to stop the open-ended payments to SAIC, and forced them to agree to a real deadline.

That decision magically accelerated the pace of the project. By last September, just 73,000 employees were on the system. By December, the number had shot up to 100,000 employees, proving that there's nothing like a little work incentive to get things done.

But Liu's success only makes one wonder why questions weren't raised much sooner by his predecessor, William Thompson.

Living the good life: CityTime’s
former overseer, Joel Bondy
Photo from Bondy’s Facebook page
Living the good life: CityTime’s former overseer, Joel Bondy

Records indicate that along with the mayor's office, the comptroller's office approved all of the contract increases, but didn't audit CityTime until this year. That audit found, among other things, that the project was plagued by "poor management decisions." It was so bad, in fact, that there was no way to figure out just how many dollars were wasted, the audit said.

Forster, the Local 375 official, tells the Voice that his people approached Thompson's office in 2007 to request an inquiry on CityTime, but were politely rebuffed.

"It just seemed like they had too much on their plate at the time to take on something so massive," Forster says. "And then there was the election and that was sort of it."

Moreover, an SAIC competitor told the New York Post that he had been raising red flags for years, saying he spoke to both Comptroller Thompson's office and the mayor's office about his concerns.

Comptroller spokeswoman Sharon Lee said she couldn't comment on the Thompson era.

And what does the scandal say about the Department of Investigation?

DOI commissioner Rose Gill Hearn has been aggressive in pursuing CityTime this past year. According to the federal indictment, the investigation began in June 2010, when a former consultant told DOI he was being paid by a company that hadn't been approved to work on the project. The federal case appears to rely heavily on the DOI investigation.

But you have to wonder what, if anything, was done before then. It's hard to believe that not one person approached DOI between 1998 and 2010 to complain about the internal workings of the project.

In fact, in 2007, the Voice has learned, DOI did investigate CityTime, including interviewing several CityTime consultants and a few payroll affairs people.

In addition, the probe examined a Department of Defense Inspector General investigation into a number of former SAIC employees who had formally complained that after they blew the whistle on improper billing practices, SAIC retaliated against them by firing them, records show.

What DOI did with the information that was gathered remains unclear.

DOI spokeswoman Diane Struzzi declined to comment on any specifics because of the current, ongoing investigation into CityTime. "There have been a series of allegations going back several years—some have borne fruit and some have not," she said. "There is not a single complaint that came into this department that laid out the kickbacks, the money laundering, or the shell companies. DOI uncovered those crimes."

And, of course, there's the January 2009 anonymous Internet posting, which should have piqued someone's curiosity. It wasn't all that hard to stumble across it.

And then there's the City Council—the supposed check on the mayor's spending habits. While some Council members—like Letitia James and Joseph Addabbo—have sought answers, where was the council in the years when the project grew out of control? Isn't the council supposed to approve big contract increases?

While the council voted to approve the initial contract, James says that it did not get a chance to approve or disapprove the subsequent and sharp cost increases. In essence, she claims, the Bloomberg administration was able to do an end run around on the council's oversight role. Can it really be true that the council had no idea what was happening in the project?

Jamie McShane, a spokesman for Council Speaker Christine Quinn, did not respond to Voice questions.

In many respects, the local media was also behind the curve. Part of the reason was that the Bloomberg administration kept the true cost of the project under wraps. As a result, there was confusion in the press about just what the project cost. A New York Times article in January 2007, for example, set the project cost at $180 million, when, by then, the true expense was already much higher.

It wasn't until Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez began in late 2009 what would become a series of probing columns that the story began to emerge from the shadows.

Of course, CityTime isn't the first high-tech city project to go horribly awry—just the most expensive and allegedly the most corrupt.

City Comptroller Liu said in May that there were a series of high-tech city projects with cost overruns, missed deadlines, and incomplete or ineffective systems. A city personnel tracking system, for example, mushroomed from $66 million to $155 million.

Just last week, Liu said that a project to create two new 911 emergency systems for the police and fire departments had swelled from $380 million in 2005 to $666 million with no major alterations of the project plans. The project is one year overdue, and has been troubled by poor management and oversight by the contractor, his office said.

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