Florida transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault said his inspector general is following up on a scathing report about the botched rollout of the overhauled SunPass system.
Thibault said he asked his inspector general to review the report and come up with additional recommendations after Gov. Ron DeSantis’ chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, faulted the department and private contractors for cost overruns and a lack of oversight of the nearly $350 million project.
Thibault said the lack of controls over the private contractor, Conduent State & Local Solutions, was the biggest lesson from the report.
“That, by far, is my biggest takeaway: making sure we have those controls in place,” Thibault told the Times/Herald in a wide-ranging interview on Tuesday. “I am extremely confident that with the leadership team we have in place, we won’t have a repeat of that issue.”
Last year, Conduent took over processing tolls along the majority of Florida’s highways and badly botched the job. The company’s software was completely overwhelmed, and thousands of customers were overbilled or had their bank accounts overdrawn. The state says it expects to lose $50 million in toll revenue this year.
SunPass’ website also went down and SunPass’ locations at airport terminals stopped working altogether. In the wake of the fiasco, then-Gov. Rick Scott asked his inspector general to discover what went wrong.
After more than a year of work, Miguel released her report last week. The investigation found that multiple red flags were raised prior to Conduent taking over, and that the project lacked “robust public oversight.”
The contract, originally worth $287 million, ballooned 25 percent to $358 million, and the project delays and cost overruns were noticed by a separate state agency that then dropped its oversight for unknown reasons.
The report did not investigate why the contract was initially awarded to Conduent in 2013. The Times/Herald found that department officials lowered the minimum requirements and deviated from procurement policies to award the contract to the New Jersey-based company. The company had also hired lobbyists close to Scott.
Two competing companies protested the award. Then, in a highly unusual move, Thibault’s predecessor, Ananth Prasad, paid one of the losing bidders $3.6 million to drop its protest.
Thibault, who took over as secretary in January, said he was reluctant to second-guess previous transportation secretaries, but said he would not have paid off a losing bidder.
“That would not be a thing I would have done,” Thibault said. “There are things I know that we wouldn’t have done if we came to that crossroad.”
Still, he did not say he would order his inspector general to explore those issues.
He did defend one of the major themes in the report: having private contractors oversee projects carried out by other private contractors. In this case, the company overseeing the SunPass contract was Atkins.
Thibault said that the department, which is heavily outsourced, lacks the expertise to play an active role overseeing certain projects. He compared the SunPass project to the department’s Port of Miami tunnel project, which was also heavily outsourced.
That was only the second tunnel project the department had done, he said, so the department had to hire special experts to oversee it.
“We’re probably not going to do another (tunnel) for another 30 years, so why would I have that in-house?” he said. “We need the skill sets that others can provide.”
The inspector general noted that Atkins employees told Conduent that its tests leading up to the SunPass takeover were inadequate. But the report did not draw any conclusions about Atkins’ performance, and Thibault said the department was not in the process of taking any action against the company.
Atkins has been paid about $92 million for its contract, state records show. Along with oversight of the SunPass contract, the scope of Atkins’ contract with the state requires the company to perform an array of engineering and consulting services related to the state’s toll operations.
The department has fined Conduent more than $10 million since last year’s debacle, and Thibault said the second half of the company’s seven-year contract would not be automatically renewed.
For the next phase of the contract, the department is considering adhering to one of the chief inspector general’s recommendations: breaking up the contract into smaller, more manageable parts, he said.