Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: There's no escape key for Tallahassee Zone

You are traveling through a another dimension — a dimension of sound (cue crinkling dollar bills), a dimension of sight (cue a martini), a dimension of mind (cue an empty vessel). You have just entered "The Tallahassee Zone."

Oh, the terror of it all.

Perhaps you are wondering how it was possible for Deloitte Consulting, a company that was awarded $63 million in taxpayer dollars to create a state unemployment benefits website, to turn out to be as efficient as Lucille Ball on a candy wrapper assembly line.

Or perhaps you are wondering how it would be possible the same company that had created a website made out of Legos could be awarded another state contract worth $31.6 million to cook up a computer system tracking Medicaid eligibility.

If you do indeed wonder about these things, you have demonstrated you are uniquely unqualified to work for the state of Florida in Tallahassee — the land of the incurious, the indifferent, the indecisive.

But at least we have a better understanding why the botched state unemployment website is called CONNECT. And at least somebody received some state checks, and it was precious few of those who really needed the money.

When the CONNECT website launched in October, factotums for Gov. Rick Scott's Department of Economic Opportunity popped champagne corks and pronounced the system a glorious success. But five minutes later the hamster on the treadmill powering the site apparently keeled over and everything imploded.

Eventually Deloitte was fined $15,000 a day until it made things right and federal government officials descended upon Tallahassee to sort things out.

But Deloitte's Rube Goldbergesque handling of CONNECT did not prevent it from shamelessly submitting a $31.6 million bid to the Florida Department of Children and Families to modernize the agency's system for tracking Medicaid benefits. Modernize? What will this involve? An upgrade to two hamsters?

Oddly enough, Deloitte did not submit the lowest DCF bid. Accenture offered to do the work for $6 million less. You would think in a Scott administration that will not extend Medicaid benefits to more poor people, saving $6 million in public money would be warmly embraced.

DCF's negotiating team on the contract voted 7-0 to award the work to Accenture. And even after negotiations with the company stalled, the DCF minions still voted 4-3 to give Accenture the job.

But who needs all this stinking by-the-book nonsense? Ultimately, DCF Deputy Secretary Suzanne Vitale overruled her own negotiating team and forked over $31.6 million to Deloitte, explaining to the Tampa Bay Times' Michael Van Sickler that "as the executive I have to think about other things that may or may not have been considered."

Ah yes, isn't it the "other things" that tend to make a difference?

But what "other things"?

As it turned out, Deloitte lawyered/lobbied up with influence-peddlers such as Brian Ballard, who chaired Scott's inaugural finance committee, as well as the lobbying firm of Slater Bayliss and Al Cardenas, former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. And why not? With more than $283.4 million in state contracts since 2007, Deloitte could certainly afford the barrels of Tallahassee political juice.

Certainly, regardless of all the GOP professional arm-twisters, Vitale reviewed the two bids and concluded entirely on her own that although the CONNECT website was about as state-of-the art as a Princess phone, Deloitte was just the company to take on the DCF project.

Vitale maintained Deloitte was picked for the DCF work because it had such a sterling reputation as an "established player in this field nationwide," "player" being the operative word. Deloitte's government work product has been problematic in other states such as Pennsylvania and California.

Perhaps this is too harsh. Perhaps it is unfair to focus on Deloitte's shortcomings, including the CONNECT hamster 0.0 website. Who could deny that when it comes to hiring wired lobbyists, Deloitte is a player nonpareil.

While the CONNECT hamster 0.1 upgrades are continuing, late last year an Ernst & Young report noted Deloitte's DCF Medicaid project was behind schedule and over budget.

The good news though is that the "other things" are working like a fine Swiss watch in "The Tallahassee Zone."

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