During the trial of Mobile County License Commissioner Kim Hastie, defense attorneys unearthed an $82,000 overcharge from 2007 a contractor was allowed to repay through a 21-month payment plan the Mobile County Commission had no knowledge of.
Throughout the seven-day trial, the defense analyzed the work long-time computer contractor Victor Crawford has performed for the Mobile County Probate Court, the public works department, the license commission and the county commission.
Though some county officials have publicly questioned the quality and cost of Crawford’s work over the years, Crawford has been able to maintain some type of government contract in Mobile County since 1988. Throughout most of that time, Crawford has also maintained a relationship with County Engineer Joe Ruffer, who was referred to as Crawford’s “friend and mentor” during the trial.
To negate Crawford’s testimony, defense attorneys pointed out his company’s (APL Software Engineering) habit of billing a higher hourly rate for employees in his contracts than he ultimately paid them as a salary.
According to testimony from the trial, APL Software employee Katie Williamson was compensated at an hourly rate of $75 for her work at the license commission from 2012 to 2014 — a rate the county was billed for. However, on the stand, Crawford said he’d only paid Williamson around $25 per hour while he put the rest of the money in the company’s coffers.
The defense team referred to the practice as “overbilling,” but Crawford objected to that characterization. Regardless of how his compensation for Williamson’s work at the license commission was disbursed, it wasn’t the first time Crawford’s invoices were scrutinized.
According to documents obtained from the county, in 2007 Crawford billed the county’s public works department $65 per hour for multiple employees he listed as “senior programmer analysts.”
At the time, a review of the contract showed the $65 hourly rate to be an overcharge of around $25 per hour based upon the employees’ qualifications, the work they performed and the pay they ultimately took home.
In written correspondence between Crawford and Ruffer, Crawford acknowledged the duties assigned to the employees in question would be “more befitting the job description of a ‘computer operator,’” and agreed to lower his payments to $45 per hour.
Working with an administrative service manager who reviewed the contract at the time, the public works department determined that from roughly June 2005 through May 2007, the county was overbilled approximately $82,018.75.
According to correspondence from August 2007, which only mentions Ruffer and Crawford, a payment plan was arranged over 21 months to reimburse the county by reducing Crawford’s normal monthly invoices.
“The method of reimbursement was determined and approved by Mr. Ruffer,” the agreement reads.
Despite the amount of money allegedly overcharged, it doesn’t appear county commissioners or administrators were ever made aware of the overbillings or the payment plan Ruffer apparently organized to collect the money.
Stephen Nodine, who represented District 2 on the commission at the time, said he was never notified of the arrangement.
“There was never any inclusion or the hint of a clue that some type of payment plan was set up,” Nodine recalled recently. “First of all, it’s illegal. That would have had to have come back before the commission. Not only was I not informed, but neither was the county attorney or our public relations person at the time.”
Following his well-documented legal problems since 2010, Nodine has been willing to talk about various issues the County Commission faced during his time in office. Nodine spent time in prison for a federal gun violation and perjury, and was also tried unsuccessfully for murder.
Another former county employee, on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the issue was never brought before commissioners. Attempts to reach Mike Dean for verification — Dean also served on the commission at the time — were unsuccessful.
Crawford himself has declined interviews for previous stories about his work with the county, and has not responded to requests for comment on this story either.
Interestingly, the question of APL Software’s billing practices came at a time when Nodine had taken a special interest in Crawford’s contracts with the county and the billing practices he’d established under previous county commissioners. In fact, in 2007, Nodine had just managed to get the second vote needed to terminate Crawford’s consulting contract with the county commission.
But one month later, the company was rehired on a month-to-month basis, only to have its contract terminated again in 2008. According to a Press-Register article from the time, Nodine made several public complaints about APL Software, its rate of compensation and information he claimed was being withheld from the county.
Nodine said he compiled a detailed package of Crawford’s billing practices and “overcharging” and turned them over to John Tyson, Mobile County District Attorney at the time. Despite Nodine’s efforts, it appears no formal investigation was ever launched into Crawford’s contracts with Mobile County.
Recently, Nodine recalled Ruffer made several attempts to persuade the county to keep Crawford’s contracts with both the commission and the public works department.
“I respect Joe Ruffer, but he had no authority or legal standing to set up any payment plan with Victor Crawford at the time,” Nodine said.
Ruffer himself declined an opportunity to discuss the matter last week, as did County Administrator John Pafenbach, who held the same position in 2007.
When asked about interviewing Pafenbach, a county spokesperson said, “He doesn’t know anything about it and so is not in a position to comment on it.”
Despite that, Nodine said it would have been incumbent upon the county administrator to advise the commission regarding Crawford’s billing practices.
As of now, Crawford’s only remaining contract is with the Mobile County License Commission. However, as the key witness and whistleblower in the mostly failed criminal case against Hastie, it’s unclear how long he might retain his employment. Despite being a witness, Crawford’s contract has no federal protection or influence now that Hastie has been acquitted of the most serious charges against her.
Hastie didn’t return calls for comment and her personal attorneys said they advised her to not address the issue until a pending retrial on an unrelated tax evasion charge is behind her.
That trial is scheduled to begin in late August.