Florida official at center of unemployment fiasco advised state on disputed $135 million contract

Tom McCullion was the project manager for CONNECT and helped choose Deloitte Consulting. Another project he advised just chose Deloitte again.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | AP ]
Published Aug. 22, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s decision to award another $135 million contract to the company that built the state’s broken unemployment system has been denounced by Gov. Ron DeSantis and state lawmakers.

Yet the state didn’t just choose the same company that built the system back then.

It also hired the same man who was supposed to make sure the system worked.

In its latest mission to overhaul the state’s Medicaid data system, the Agency for Health Care Administration hired Tom McCullion as a private contractor to lead the effort, including the bidding process that led to the potential $135 million award to Deloitte Consulting.

McCullion was the project manager on the state’s disastrous 2013 overhaul of the unemployment system, known as CONNECT — the same system that has delayed benefit payments to millions of Floridians during the pandemic this year. As project manager for CONNECT, he helped choose Deloitte for the $40 million project and oversaw the company’s performance.

Last fall, he was hired by the Agency for Health Care Administration as a $155-per-hour private contractor with the title Director of Business Relationships, records show. He left in March, five months before the agency announced its intent to award Deloitte with a contract to manage the state’s Medicaid data. Records show he was involved in at least one change to the state’s negotiation team, which chose the eventual winning bidder.

McCullion’s involvement is another sign that as Florida chose those who would play critical roles in overhauling the state’s Medicaid data, state officials downplayed — or ignored — the troubled history with CONNECT.

The Agency for Health Care Administration did not even look into Deloitte’s work on CONNECT until June, three months into an unemployment crisis that crippled CONNECT, according to a bid protest filed by the corporate giant Accenture. That system remains overwhelmed, falling far short of its promised around the clock service. It’s now managing to operate from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. 7 days per week.

Lawyers for Accenture and IBM, which also lost out to Deloitte on the 2011 unemployment system contract, filed protests this week, temporarily halting the Medicaid project. Neither company named McCullion in their protests.

But State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said McCullion’s involvement indicates that the state should have been looking harder at Deloitte’s history.

“It smells. It smells badly,” said Rouson, who mentioned McCullion in a two-paragraph letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis in April warning him not to hire Deloitte. “This underscores even more the need to overhaul this whole system of bidding.”

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.

McCullion has not responded to phone calls, emails or letters from the Times/Herald since March, when the state’s unemployment system was overwhelmed by a record crush of pandemic-related unemployment claims. He was not at his Tallahassee home when a reporter knocked on his door last week.

A spokeswoman for the Agency for Health Care Administration declined to comment on McCullion’s role. In May, the agency told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that he was hired as a project manager until March 19, when they found a permanent replacement.

In his application for the job with Agency for Health Care Administration, McCullion touted that he was “accountable for the successful implementation” of CONNECT. In reality, the new system was an undeniable failure that many still blame on then-Gov. Rick Scott.

Hired in 2010 at a salary of $124,992, McCullion was project manager on a plan to overhaul the state’s unemployment system to process claims from Floridians left jobless by the Great Recession.

The new system would be called CONNECT. McCullion, along with four other people, chose Deloitte for the job in 2011. Although the company had been fired by the Miami-Dade School District just two years earlier, Deloitte beat out eight other companies. Accenture and IBM came in second and third.

The company’s original contract was for nearly $40 million, but it would be amended 17 times and balloon to more than $47 million. (The company would be penalized $8 million by 2015.)

As project manager, McCullion was responsible for ensuring Deloitte’s product met the state’s requirements. But Deloitte was slow and its work so poor that the department threatened to fire the company in June 2012. Instead, the company stayed on board, with McCullion still overseeing them.

Over the next year, the state would pay Ernst & Young more than $2 million to independently test Deloitte’s system. Just three months before CONNECT went live, McCullion was grilled about whether the system was ready during a meeting of the project’s steering committee.

He defended the system and “reassured the committee that high volume loads were being tested and the system will be able to handle the expected volumes” when it went live, according to the minutes from the project’s steering committee. An Ernst & Young manager called it “a textbook example of a well run project.”

When the system launched Oct. 15, 2013, McCullion and other agency officials celebrated.

“The system was up and running 100 percent of the time,” McCullion wrote to the Department of Economic Opportunity’s top brass the next day. “The two issues that caused claimants to receive an error message have been resolved.”

“Woop woop … congrats!” wrote one colleague. “You rock!” said another.

In reality, the system was overwhelmed and melted down within hours, similar to what millions of unemployed Floridians experienced with the system over the last five months.

After CONNECT launched, people were unable to file claims. Many went without benefits. One Pensacola job center needed an off-duty cop to handle irate customers. The state hired 330 more employees to manage the fallout.

McCullion would leave the project the next year and join the Department of Transportation as chief information officer, according to his resume. Deloitte would leave the project in 2015. By 2019, state auditors had concluded in three separate audits that serious problems remained unaddressed with CONNECT. In March, the system would crash because of the high volume claims caused by the pandemic.

Despite Deloitte being publicly flogged for CONNECT’s failings by DeSantis, media reports and trial attorneys this spring, the Agency for Health Care Administration chose Deloitte for the $135 million project to handle Medicaid data.

A Times/Herald analysis found that state officials downplayed each company’s history. Deloitte, despite being penalized $8 million for its work on CONNECT, scored a perfect 10 in the category that addressed the company’s work history.

On top of that, the Department of Economic Opportunity told the agency it wouldn’t hire Deloitte again. Meanwhile, Accenture received positive recommendations from two other state agencies.

It wasn’t until June, after months of public outcry over CONNECT, that Agency for Health Care Administration officials sought out opinions about Deloitte and Accenture. Officials realized they needed to do “due diligence and fact-finding to understand” Deloitte’s unemployment debacle, according to Accenture’s bid protest.

In its protest, IBM claims that one of the state’s evaluators did not receive part of the company’s bid. While two evaluators gave IBM 32 and 28 points in one category, a third gave IBM just 8 points, awarding the company zero points in five subcategories. According to the scoring rules the agency created, a company should only score zero points if an item is “not addressed.”

With IBM falling just seven points short of Accenture, the “zero” scores blocked the company from winning second place and making it to the negotiation round with the state, the company alleges, clearing the path for Deloitte to win the contract.

Times staff writer Kirby Wilson contributed to this story.