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.

He rejected a new $286 million contract request from the Bloomberg administration and demanded a review. The central issue, he charged, was that, similar to CityTime, the project allows a kind of open-ended spending.

"This type of vague budgeting formula allows outside consultants to bill on an hourly basis and collect exorbitant fees, as in the case of the CityTime project," Liu said. "The program was troubled by findings of poor management and less than satisfactory oversight by the original vendor."

The history of CityTime goes back to 1996 and the Giuliani administration. The goal was to computerize the city's payroll system, which covers close to 160,000 workers. After another bidder dropped out, the contract was awarded to MCI Systemhouse. After two years, Systemhouse came up with a thick, heavily detailed, and comprehensive technical plan, or "scope of work," for the project, and estimated that it would cost $63 million and take five years.

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

In other words, it wasn't like someone just came up with the $63 million budget on a cocktail napkin. A great deal of thought and work went into it.

The proposal contained detailed deadlines that made clear the contractor felt it was possible to complete the job in five years, plus lists of thousands of pieces of high-tech equipment that needed to be purchased and dozens of deadlines listed in 30-day increments.

Even at $63 million, the contract provided fairly lavish pay rates for the contractors: more than $300 an hour for top managers, more than $200 per hour for mid-level people. Even the word processors would get $80 an hour. (A percentage is, of course, kicked to the company.)

Even taking the cost of inflation into account, if the project took 10 years, the finished product still should have cost only about $84.5 million.

Moreover, the contract contained a key provision that levied money damages for missed deadlines—a standard incentive that was irresponsibly eliminated a few years later.

But Systemhouse was bought by WorldCom and dropped the project, transferring its CityTime unit to a new firm, Paradigm 4.

In 2000, the city decided to add new elements to the plan, chiefly switching to a system with one central Internet server, rather than a separate server in each agency. The second of a dozen contract amendments increased the budget to $73 million.

The following year, the city hired Mazer's firm, Spherion, to do something called "quality assurance"—essentially to keep an eye on the project. That contract started at a cost of $3.4 million. Since then, it has been changed a dozen times and has ballooned to $51 million. As the Mazer indictment suggests, not only were they not watching the contractor, no one was watching the watchers.

For some reason, the contract was changed after five months to drop a requirement that Spherion examine and approve each piece of the project. As a result, the last record of such a review dates back to 2001, the comptroller's audit says.

Spherion was also supposed to supply regular summaries of the project's progress. The comptroller could not find any such summaries after 2001.

About a year later, the role of project manager was added to Spherion's contract. That meant that the auditor was now also involved in managing the project, according to the 2010 comptroller's audit—a clear conflict of interest.

By the time Mayor Bloomberg was elected, Paradigm 4 was out of the picture and SAIC had taken over the project. When the contractors changed, critics have said, the council should have had a chance to review it. There was no such review. SAIC was selected without competitive bidding.

And in a critical, and ultimately unfortunate, move, the contract was changed from one that levied penalties for failure to hit milestones to a more open-ended method of monthly payments based on hours worked. Ironically, the move was supposed to "streamline" the process. It caused the opposite effect, giving the contractor no incentive to make deadlines.

SAIC has won many millions in government contracts over the years, but it has also racked up its share of fines. In 1995, the company paid a $2.5 million fine for defrauding the government over a computer system for jet fighters. In 1998, the company paid a $1.1 million fine to the Defense Department.

A group of former employees accused the firm of retaliating against them for complaining about questionable billing practices on another job.

In January 2002, perhaps true to form, SAIC officials had the brilliant idea of trying to hire the city official overseeing them, Richard Valcich. In a letter uncovered from the city comptroller's office, Valcich expressed his dismay at the overture, published reports said.

Valcich said he was sorry "if I seemed rude and abruptly shortened your discussion on a future post city-employment position with SAIC." He added: "It is inappropriate to discuss any post employment with a company that I do business with."

By November 2002, another amendment made more changes to the project, and the approved cost rose again from $115 million.

Meanwhile, things between Valcich and SAIC weren't going so well. In what should have been an enormous red flag to the comptroller and the mayor, Valcich slammed SAIC's job performance in a February 19, 2003, letter released by the comptroller's office.

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