The Mobile County Communications District (MCCD) has made headlines recently since the bidding process for a $40 million communications enhancement project came under scrutiny by members of the organization’s own board.
Last month the MCCD, or 911 board, agreed to fund a special investigation into the process by which Harris Corporation was awarded the contract in 2013.At the center of the bid were Mobile County Engineer Joe Ruffer and Director of Public Safety Communications Eric Linsley — two county employees that until July 31, had turned down multiple opportunities to speak with members of the local media and the 911 board’s team of independent investigators.
Though the county government and the MCCD are completely separate entities with separate funding sources, both have ties to the project. The current radio communications system used by first responders throughout the county is owned by Mobile County, but maintained separately by the MCCD.
After the current project is completed, the county is hoping to turn full ownership and maintenance responsibility of the new radio system over to the 911 board. The county had also originally intended to transfer Linsley and two electronics employees to the MCCD, where they would maintain the new system.
The employee transfer has since been halted in light of the recent controversy, but in the time between 2013 and 2015 – while his normal scope of work at the county included such tasks as maintaining elevators and keypads in Government Plaza — Linsley worked closely with the 911 board overseeing the current communications system and developing some of the bid specifications for the contract Harris was ultimately awarded.
“Sometimes in life, things ain’t fair”
As Ruffer led a four-hour meeting with investigators and reporters last week to review documents related to the project, it became abundantly clear the 911 board had been working with Harris prior to opening bids for the project on Sept. 20, 2013.
“People have been asking, ‘were y’all working with Harris before the bid?’ The answer is ‘yes, no question about it,’” Ruffer said. “The board’s attorney was talking extensively with Harris trying to work out a way to buy the (project components) off the state’s T-300 contract.”
As Lagniappe previously reported, Ruffer said the 911 board initially believed the project could be awarded to Harris through a “sole-source” contract by purchasing the necessary equipment off a pre-approved state bid list. Ruffer said a former Harris sales representative had incorrectly given the board that impression.
After three months of discussing the details with Harris, the board’s attorney at the time, Bill Wasden, decided “he was not comfortable” moving forward with a sole-source contract, and the project was put out for competitive bids on Aug. 5, 2013.Though it wasn’t required, emails show that on the same day, Linsley sent the bid specifications to eight different communications companies.
“We emailed them this whole document trying to give them as much of a head start as we possibly could,” Ruffer said. “If you’ll look at the bid specs he prepared for the project, there is no mention of Harris. These are generic specifications that (any company) could meet. That’s one of the big advantages of a P25 system is the competition among vendors.”
Despite the effort, Harris’ proposal was the only one submitted to the board within the two-week deadline, but documents provided to Lagniappe show that at least one other company tried to join the bidding war but apparently did so in vain.
Five days after the project first began advertising, a representative of Motorola wrote MCCD Director Gary Tanner asking for a 60-day extension of the bid, but that request was denied due to a looming legislative change that redefined the funding process for communications districts statewide.
Since Oct. 1, 2013, a newly-created state 911 board collects all the telephone fees funding the 911 systems in counties throughout the Alabama.
The legislation creating the state board also charged it with collecting and distributing funding to each communications district based on a pre-determined formula.
Another state law, Alabama Code 11-98-5(b), requires the MCCD not take in revenues that “exceed the amount of moneys necessary to fund the district.” Because the MCCD at the time was expending $6 million a year while taking $11 million, Ruffer said $5 million in annual revenue from Mobile County residents would have been collected by the state and distributed to other counties.
So, before the state board could redistribute the local fees elsewhere, the MCCD board found a way to add $5 million to its annual expenditures.
“We had to encumber or expend those funds by Sept. 20, 2013, because that was the last day the 911 board here in Mobile County had the authority to levy a rate and collect the rate,” Ruffer said. “It was either, keep the money here and make things better here, or give it to the state board and they’ll make things better in Birmingham. Somebody’s going to spend that money.”
Because of the deadline, Motorola’s request to extend the bid window was denied, leaving it or any other qualified contractor with only two weeks to prepare a bid Harris had been privy to for several months. However, Ruffer claimed the extensive detail in the project’s specifications should have made it easy for any company to submit a bid within the allotted time.
“It was the best we could do under the circumstances,” Ruffer said. “They did what they had to do to protect that five million dollars a year. Sometimes in life, things ain’t fair like we want them to be. In the long run, how do we undo that three months with Harris? You can’t unring the bell. Even if we’d given Motorola a year, Harris would have still had all that time plus three months.”
1,081 radios, $5 million, two purchase orders
Another focal point in the review of the contract has been the 1,081 radios valued at just under $5 million that have sat in a warehouse in a Chickasaw warehouse since 2013.
Those radios are laid out in the project’s specifications, but were paid for with a separate purchase order and delivered on June 27, 2013 — nearly two weeks before bids were advertised.
Ruffer said the shipment was ordered and delivered during the period of time when the board expected to use state contract pricing to complete the project. Only four days after a purchase order for the radios was signed, it was voided until the project was officially awarded to Harris. Then in September, a second, identical purchase order was sent to Hurricane Electronics, a Harris authorized dealer, to pay for the radios.
Trying to beat the state’s deadline to encumber funds, the board agreed to purchase those radios in 2013 even though the vast majority of them won’t be needed until the project is finished sometime in the next year and a half.
“We had some choices,” Ruffer said. “We might could have sat down and worked out something with a $5 million down payment, but then we would have had nothing for the expenditure. We wanted something to show.”
Ruffer said the board faced further pressure because, in the weeks that followed, the MCCD was subject to its second state audit in its 25-year history. And as Ruffer said, they were “hunting for extra money we had down here.”
Though some of the radios may be almost four years old before they’re distributed to first responders, Ruffer said software updates will keep them performing on par with the “latest and the greatest.”
When the purchase order was finalized, Harris only agreed to a two-year warranty, which some have noted will expire in September. However, Ruffer pointed out that in two separate locations the bid specifications call for a two-year warranty from the date of “system acceptance” and not from the date of delivery.
However, Ruffer admitted that particular contractual issue may have to be resolved legally.
Harris Wireless Users GroupIn his own words, Ruffer said Linsley has been “thrown under the bus” since questions about the Harris contract were first raised. A good portion of the four-hour press conference the county held July 31 revolved around Linsley, his credentials and his purported involvement with Harris.
About two weeks ago, some local media began to suggest Linsley’s involvement with the Harris Wireless Users Group could have presented a conflict of interest during his work with Harris and the preparation of the generic bid specifications.
According to Harris, the users group is an entirely independent body that has nothing to do with the operations of the company. Linsley said being being involved with the users group has been very beneficial for himself, the county government and the citizens of Mobile County.
“Like most industry user groups, the International Harris Wireless Users Group, Inc. is an independent nonprofit corporation whose members are from organizations and agencies that use Harris products,” said Victoria B. Dillon, Harris’ director of marketing and communications. “The members represent their communities in discussing common equipment needs and practices, use of current and future Harris products and on occasion recommend changes to Harris equipment.”
Linsley previously served as the president of the users group, but Ruffer and Linsley, who have both participated in various user groups with other companies, said organizations like those are typically just a vehicle to discuss and address common problems amongst users of the same radio systems.
Linsley also said the county pays for his travel expenses to annual meetings of the group along with his annual dues, and emphasized his involvement isn’t compensated by Harris in any way. A consultant for the 911 board called Harris Users Group meetings “Kumbaya sessions” for the company in other news reports, but Linsley said the meetings are more akin to a support group.
“Quite frankly, when you have a problem as a group, you could put pressure on the manufacturer to address that problem now instead of later,” Ruffer said. “That’s the most important things I saw user groups do.”
Investigations and resignations
Less than a month after launching an independent investigation into the history of the Harris contact, the 911 board voted unanimously June 30 to suspend all payments and deliverables related to the contract until the investigation concludes.
A day later, the board’s then-attorney Larry Wettermark resigned his position, citing “the feelings of certain board members,” amongst other issues. Attorney Jeff Hartley, who at the time had already been brought in to assist with the internal investigation, replaced Wettermark at a subsequent meeting.
So far, the only update on the progress of the internal investigation has been a complaint from some board members that Ruffer and Linsley have refused to be interviewed separately by investigators.
During the press conference Friday, which was attended by two of those investigators, Mobile County Attorney Jay Ross elaborated on Ruffer’s and Linsley’s desire to be interviewed simultaneously.
“The decision was made that if they wanted to talk to these two, they needed to talk to them together,” Ross said. “Their board attorney didn’t want to do it that way, so we didn’t do it. That’s no criticism of the 911 board. We just couldn’t agree.”
When asked if he was concerned they would give two different answers, Ross said he “wasn’t scared of anything,” adding that some issues were “so complicated that each one complements the other.”
Also in attendance Friday were two staff members of Mobile County District Attorney’s office — an investigator and an assistant district attorney. There was a bit of confusion with the DA staff at first and they weren’t immediately allowed into the press conference.
“They were not invited,” Mobile County Director of Public Affairs Nancy Johnson said on Monday. “This was just a private meeting with the media. They came anyway, and we let them right in.”
Johnson attributed the confusion to a receptionist in the public works department who “exercised her authority to not let them in.” Johnson said once she and Ross became aware they were trying to enter the conference, they were allowed in.
At this point, it’s not entirely clear what action the district attorney’s office has taken on the matter, but it does seem there could at least be some sort of a preliminary investigation already underway. When asked for comment Aug. 3, Rich said “the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office does not comment on any ongoing investigations.”
At the meeting Friday, reporters also asked about the potential for any criminal charges, and Ruffer said he simply wasn’t worried. Linsley said “there had been a lot of confusion” about the project by people who weren’t familiar with it.
“It was a good project, but it could have been administered better,” Linsley said. “We could have had better record keeping.”
Ruffer, who was one of Linsley’s supervisors and the chairman of the 911 board throughout most of the contract negotiations, said he likely had “more involvement” and “way more knowledge” of what was being voted on compared to other board members.
However, since he stepped down from the 911 board and several other county boards in March, Ruffer said he won’t have any involvement with the communications enhancement project going forward.