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What is Johnnie Byrd hiding?

When House Speaker Johnnie Byrd was accused of abandoning a $2.9-million state contract with one computer company in favor of one picked by a political friend, he was quick to defend his honor. "Left with the options of paying a vendor for work he did not complete or letting the House computer system fail, I believe we made the correct decision," he wrote this newspaper. ". . . In an emergency situation, I turned to trusted and experienced professionals."

Asked to defend his actions in a court of law, though, Byrd suddenly seems out of the loop. He is now fighting a deposition in the lawsuit Hayes Computer Systems filed against the House, and his attorney told the court recently that Byrd has no "independent knowledge" of the decision and no "facts to add."

That's curious, given that some of the people who already have testified under oath say that Byrd made numerous personal demands and that Hayes' scope of work changed almost overnight when Byrd became speaker last fall. In fact, Paul Hawkes, a policy chief for Byrd's predecessor, says he didn't see much wrong with the Hayes computer system. Hawkes, who is now a state appeals court judge, said in a sworn deposition that "everybody was happy with the way it was progressing."

Whether Hayes should have been fired is a matter for the court to sort out, but the reason Byrd is ducking his deposition may have more to do with a bizarre allegation that has surfaced. Byrd's office, according to a sworn deposition by Hayes programmer Michael Maddox, demanded a "surreptitious" computer process to track "promises made and promises kept" by lawmakers. That separate computer database, known as the "decision support system," was to be accessible only to a handful of people in the speaker's office who would then destroy the records at their own discretion. The system was to be so super-secret that it might include a polarized shield to prevent a computer screen from being read from an angle and a timer to automatically hide portions of the screen if not in use. Said Maddox, a former programmer for the Department of State, "I expressed . . . my concerns about the secrecy. And said, "what happens later on if the speaker's staff is the only people that can use this, what about the next speaker's staff? What if the Democrats win the next election, do they get the system?' The essential response was: That won't happen."

Byrd's attorney has called the accusation "scandalous," but the speaker has yet to personally deny it. Hayes has produced images of the "promise keeper" computer screen, but Byrd's spokeswoman has acted as though the company produced the work on a lark.

Why did Byrd change computer companies, and what was he seeking as the House installed a new computer system? All the public knows at this point is that the state has paid more than $3-million to a computer firm hired with no competitive bids, that taxpayers could be on the hook for as much as $2.9-million for the work Hayes had performed before being dismissed, that some people have made some nasty allegations under oath, and that Byrd is ducking a request for sworn testimony to explain his role.

In his letter to the Times, Byrd wrote that "your readers deserve to know the whole picture." If that's the case, then why is he so assiduously avoiding a chance to clear up the facts? If someone is lying, why isn't Byrd eager to take the oath?