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Ruling says HRS contract improper

TALLAHASSEE - The state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) was wrong to scrap bids for a computer and award the contract on an emergency, no-bid basis to the original high bidder, a hearing officer ruled. "The evidence indicates that the department's action was arbitrary and subverted the purpose of competitive bidding," William F. Quattlebaum said in his recommended order.

But HRS Secretary Greg Coler, who approved the emergency purchase, can overturn the recommended order.

The purchase of the computer equipment has been postponed pending the outcome of the challenge. HRS spokesman David Adams told the Florida Times-Union that the agency won't comment until a final ruling is issued.

Coler or a staff member he designates has 90 days to issue a final decision, said Sharyn Smith, director of the Division of Administrative Hearings.

The contract, worth several hundred thousand dollars in the short term and up to nearly $2-million over time, should be awarded to the original low bidder, Wang Laboratories, Quattlebaum said in his ruling.

He also concluded that Viann Hardy, deputy HRS secretary for management systems, conducted contract negotiations with IBM Corp. before notifying Wang that the bidding procedure was canceled.

Quattlebaum's recommended order outlines how the agency went from a competitive bid proceeding to a no-bid proceeding.

Last summer, HRS requested bids for a computer system to be used in its Miami office. A committee ranked Wang first and IBM second in a technical evaluation.

And Wang's price - $225,394 - was lower than IBM's bid of $399,924.

While the bid was for equipment at the Miami office, HRS might have later expanded the contract award to six other offices.

On Sept. 11, the day the contract was to be awarded, Ms. Hardy asked her employees to delay doing so. Ms. Hardy attended a conference in Miami that day and discussed the computer contract with IBM representatives there.

In a Sept. 19 memo to Coler, Ms. Hardy recommended that HRS halt the bid procedure because the bid specifications didn't include several items - all of which would have been favorable to IBM, according to the hearing officer's ruling. She also cited Wang's alleged financial instability, presenting news stories IBM officials gave her to support such claims.

Ms. Hardy recommended that HRS declare an "emergency" purchase situation, which doesn't require competitive bidding, and buy the IBM equipment.

Coler signed off on Ms. Hardy's recommendations that same day.

During the next several days, Ms. Hardy and other HRS officials negotiated the "emergency" contract with IBM. Wang officials weren't notified until the negotiations were virtually complete.

Human rights panel criticizes study that would deny benefits

FORT LAUDERDALE - A state human rights panel has joined the criticism of a $2.4-million Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services research study that would deprive 5,500 poor Floridians of extra services such as job training and child care.

Members of the Statewide Human Rights Advocacy Committee, an HRS watchdog group, said they thought such studies are unconstitutional.

They also urged that the study be fought in court.

"It's a matter of quality and what is right and equal," said panel member Thomas Norman, a Tallahassee lawyer. "If you offer a program at all, it must be offered to everyone who is eligible equally.

Otherwise, people become human guinea pigs."

Under the study, up to 25 percent of eligible Project Independence applicants in nine counties, including Pinellas and Hillsborough, would be denied benefits and compared to applicants who participate in the program.