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For connected companies, Florida believes in second chances | Column

The governor has ordered an investigation of how Deloitte Consulting landed the CONNECT contract (as if he doesn’t know), writes Carl Hiaasen.

Here’s one for Ripley’s Believe It or Not, or at least Ronnie’s Believe It or Not: The administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis is poised to award a lucrative new contract to the same company responsible for the train wreck of an online system that has delayed or blocked thousands of Floridians from unemployment checks during the coronavirus crisis.

Deloitte Consulting, which the governor has bashed for its frequently crashing website known as CONNECT, has just won a $135 million state contract to manage Medicaid data for Florida patients.

How? Why? And, while we’re at it, WTF? All of you who waited weeks or even months for your first unemployment check have good reason to be baffled, and also pissed off.

To comprehend how Deloitte Consulting — despite botching the CONNECT project — managed to nail another juicy state deal, you’ll need a brief tour of the political swamp in Tallahassee.

This particular story begins in 2011 with Rick Scott. Soon after becoming governor, he decided that Florida needed a modernized unemployment website. A $63 million contract was awarded to Deloitte Consulting, among whose big-name lobbyists was Brian Ballard, a major fund-raiser for Republican politicians.

Oh, fun coincidence: Ballard also happened to be the co-chair of Rick Scott’s inaugural finance committee.

So, graced with good fortune, Deloitte Consulting got the contract. The unemployment website created by the firm was a cluster hump from the beginning, according to state auditors. Development fell behind schedule, and key access features didn’t work properly.

At one point, the Department of Economic Opportunity threatened to fine Deloitte Consulting $15,000 a day, and talked about firing the company. Once the site finally launched, thousands of Floridians found themselves locked out, and their benefit checks didn’t arrive for weeks and months, if at all.

It was a mess — and that was in 2013, when the number of applicants was relatively low because the unemployment rate was actually falling.

Oh, fun footnote: Taxpayers ended up paying Deloitte Consulting $77 million for its defective software system, $14 million more than the original estimate.

Ultimately, the company got fined more than $8 million and quit working on the CONNECT project in 2015. Flash forward to 2020 — the rampaging COVID-19 pandemic brings massive job losses and, predictably, the CONNECT site crashes harder than Charlie Sheen at a South Beach strip club.

Unemployment claims back up, and many thousands of laid-off workers can’t buy groceries or pay their electric bills. This, shamefully, is still happening today, five months after the coronavirus outbreak.

Rick Scott is now safely a U.S. senator, so it’s left to DeSantis to clean up the mess and cover his own butt. The governor has ordered an investigation of how Deloitte Consulting landed the CONNECT contract (as if he doesn’t know) and has compared the broken website to a “jalopy” and “clunker” that was designed to fail.

His criticism of the company has irritated Scott, who gave an interview saying DeSantis should, “Go solve problems. Quit blaming others.”

Now, back to the swamp: Seeking to duck a class-action lawsuit, Deloitte Consulting has filed court papers saying it hasn’t been involved with CONNECT for years, and bears no responsibility for the current unemployment fiasco.

Meanwhile, the firm somehow outbid IBM, Accenture and other proven tech companies for the $135 million contract to centralize Florida’s Medicaid data programs. The work will be overseen by the state Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA).

Another fun coincidence: Deloitte Consulting lobbyist Jennifer Ungru was AHCA’s chief of staff when Scott was governor. She also worked as his deputy chief of staff.

And, in the days after the last razor-thin gubernatorial race, she was a big player for DeSantis during the election recount. (Remember lobbyist Brian Ballard? He chaired DeSantis’ inaugural committee).

On Friday, DeSantis said that he didn’t want Deloitte Consulting to get the hefty new contract, but that he couldn’t legally intercede in the negotiations. He’s only the governor, after all.

Perhaps Ungru’s GOP connections have nothing to do with Deloitte Consulting winning the bid for the Medicaid project. Maybe the contract is totally legit. Maybe nobody got greased, or leaned on. Maybe it’s innocent fate and good fortune, smiling once again upon Deloitte Consultants.

Asked Senate Democratic leader Audrey Jackson: “In what world do you reward a company that sold a product described by the governor himself as a ‘jalopy’ designed to fail with even more taxpayer dollars?”

Strange things happen in Florida, Audrey. Remember, it’s the only state where Ripley’s got four museums.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, FL, 33172.

© 2020 Miami Herald

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