After months in secrecy, the report from an independent investigation into the Mobile County Communications District has been released to Lagniappe — a six-page document detailing poor management practices, backroom deals and unchecked spending.
Though the investigation ended in September 2015, the report wasn’t presented to board members until Feb. 11 and its disclosure came only minutes before the board voted unanimously to terminate the contract of then-director Garry Tanner.Now it appears several items in the report revolved around Tanner’s management and his oversight of a $40 million communications enhancement project awarded to Harris Corporation in 2013.
One of the common themes in the report’s findings is that Tanner “worked very closely” with former board member and Mobile County Engineer Joe Ruffer. It alleges Ruffer “appointed” Tanner to the position without the position being properly advertised, though it doesn’t elaborate.
“Former and current employees of the call center were very critical of Tanner’s management skills and described [him] as not making a move without Ruffer’s permission,” the report reads. “Tanner was constantly on the telephone with Ruffer. They often went to lunch together or met after work.”
In detailing Tanner’s management practices, the report claims he instituted a policy of “destroying the audio recordings” from board meetings after they had been transcribed — a policy that has prevented Lagniappe from obtaining such recordings on more than one occasion.
Current and former employees also told investigators Tanner approached them about changing meeting minutes “to add motions that were never passed, which the employees knew did not occur.”
It also describes a lack of oversight for MCCD officials and county employees who, like director of public safety communications Eric Linsley, were performing work for the MCCD while still employed through the Mobile County Commission.
“Tanner spent excessively without [the board’s] approval, such as two $30,000 cars with heated seats for himself and [Acting Director Charlie] McNichoI. Tanner had the cars equipped with emergency lights,” the report claims. “Tanner had no procedures or policies in place for the accountability of county employees doing work for MCCD.”
The report also said it was never able to verify work that Mobile County employees performed for the MCCD, which could have been difficult because both Linsley and Ruffer declined to be interviewed during the investigation unless they could be questioned simultaneously.
While Tanner’s two-year tenure as director was scrutinized, the investigation focused on the Harris project — a $40 million endeavor those interviewed say “Ruffer was [clearly] in charge of.”
Harris owners Shannon Goff and Steve Smith “were not interviewed due to time restrictions,” but as has been reported, the report says MCCD was working with Harris prior to the bidding process until an attorney determined doing so could violate state law.
It also suggests the sizable project should have “been bid as two phases — a Public Works Project for the construction and installation of the towers and a [separate] Communications Dispatch Upgrade Project.” Regardless, as Ruffer has previously stated, the report says the bidding process was unfairly skewed and gave Harris an “unmistakable advantage.”
Prior to the investigation, Linsley had admitted to preparing bid specifications for the project when it was believed to have be a sole-source endeavor, but because he would not participate in the investigation, the investigators could not determine if those bids were the same bids Harris submitted.
“[Harris] had been preparing specifications and negotiating with Tanner and [former attorney Bill] Wasden for months before the bid was actually advertised,” the report says. “Motorola Solutions Inc. sent a letter to Tanner and requested a 60-day extension for bidding, due to the complexity of the project and their desire to turn in a thorough response. The request was denied without [the board’s] approval.”
However, the report points to emails from Mobile County Commissioners Jerry Carl and Connie Hudson showing that at least one board member, Ruffer, was aware of Motorola’s request.After the commissioners asked him about the timing of Motorola’s request for an extension, Ruffer responded saying, “We MUST award the bid and have under contract this fiscal year … Hence we could not accommodate any further delay.”
The rush to have the contract finalized by a certain date has been blamed on changing state laws, which county officials say could have jeopardized years of perpetual funding. In contrast, the report concludes “MCCD was never in any danger of losing funds,” though it offers no explanation.
It is also suggested in the report that Cory Helper, a former Harris salesman, wanted to close on the contract prior o June 30, 2013 because it would have resulted in “a sizable bonus on the sale.”
The report also attempted to investigate claims that 1,000 radios valued at nearly $5 million were shipped by Harris to Hurricane Electronics Inc. in Mobile before the contract with MCCD was signed.
Documents and emails Lagniappe obtained last summer show a $5 million purchase order to Harris on June 26, 2013. The order was preceded by an email to Tanner from Mobile County Electronics Department employee Eric Linsley stating, “I have received the attached and I don’t see any problems. I recommend issuing a PO for the radios.”
However, the exact shipping date of the radios couldn’t be determined because Hurricane Electronics and Harris did not cooperate with investigators, according to the report. The report also concluded several of the radios delivered from Harris did not meet the bid specifications.
Also addressed was the length of time the MCCD advertised the project before it opened bids on Aug. 22, 2013. Receipts show the project was advertised locally on three dates between Aug. 7 and Aug. 18, but the report determined it was “questionable at best, whether or not a mere 11 days satisfies the statutory requirement of ‘three consecutive weeks.’”
“The bid was not advertised in three newspapers of general circulation throughout the state,” the report reads. “It was only advertised two times statewide in Montgomery and Huntsville, and not advertised in the largest city of Alabama, Birmingham.”
The question of whether the advertising “cut the legal mustard” is one the board themselves asked at the time, which is why they ultimately hired attorney Larry Wettermark to review the process.
After getting his stamp of approval, the project moved forward, and Wettermark was later hired as the board’s full-time attorney until his sudden resignation last June.
The report raises other issues with Hurricane Electronics Inc., a Harris-authorized vendor that received an $800,000 contract to maintain the MCCD’s current radio system. The company was also allowed to keep a business antenna on a public MCCD tower for years at no cost.
Hurricane CEO Dirk Young is alleged in the report to be “close friends” with Linsley and investigators suggested a “handshake” deal between the pair authorized Hurricane’s use of the public tower. When the issue first caused controversy last fall, Hurricane removed the antenna, paid for the service retroactively and immediately halved its monthly maintenance charges.
Before the sudden cost reduction, Hurricane was billing around $22,000 a month.
According to the report, that contract was handled by Tanner and Linsley after Hurricane sent a letter offering the service for a little more than $800,000.
Ultimately, the report recommended the board limit the authority of all MCCD positions, develop better project management processes, create accounting checks and balances, and put a cap on expenses that can be incurred without the board’s approval.
Additionally, it recommended audio recordings from board meetings no longer be destroyed and all future MCCD contractors and vendors grow through a pre-screening and vetting process.
Lagniappe reached out to one of the independent investigators, a representative of Harris Corporation, Hurricane Electronics CEO Dirk Young, Eric Linsley, Joe Ruffer and MCCD’s Acting Director Charlie McNichol for comment on this report.
However, as of press deadline, McNichol had declined to comment on the situation without first consulting with the MCCD Board. Other have yet to respond to requests for comment.