When the Mobile County Communications District (911 board) first began mulling the idea of quickly awarding a $40 million sole-source radio enhancement contract to Harris Corporation, sales manager Corey Helper worked to put the plan together.
Though the project was ultimately put out to bid, it was Harris Corporation that received the work — continuing a long relationship with Mobile County that predates most of the 911 board members.
Originally, the expansive radio upgrade was laid out in a seven-year capital improvement plan the 911 board approved in August 2012. According to Helper, Harris helped develop some of the specifics of that plan, which he said was developed to meet several federal mandates.
County officials say in response to a statewide change in Alabama’s 911 funding process, it became in the board’s best interest to condense the rollout of the radio project to a three-year plan in order to prevent a possible drop in revenue. However, the particular change in state law was ratified by Gov. Robert Bentley in May 2012 — two months before Mobile County’s capital improvements plan was finalized.
Regardless of the timeline, Helper said Harris was involved in condensing the plan, and confirmed the company was at least initially expecting to get the lucrative contract without competition by pricing the entire project through a pre-approved state bid list.“There’s a state contract, the T-300, that specifically indicates vendors with allocated discount levels. It allows you to take off for hardware, programming software and pretty much everything except brick-and-mortar buildings and steel antennas,” Helper said. “It was because of [the board’s] timeline that it was suggested we look at this avenue.”
Helper said it wasn’t uncommon for Harris to use that list to offer discounts to the 911 board on smaller projects, but this was the first time they were pursuing a project of this size. However, it wasn’t the first time Helper had attempted to bid a system project through state contracts. In fact, as a previous employee of Motorola, Helper said “Motorola specifically taught its managers how to utilize state contracts on system bids.”
Mobile County Engineer and former 911 board president Joe Ruffer told members of the press last month Helper “may have convinced the board more of the project could be handled through the T-300 contract” than was possible, but Helper told Lagniappe that wasn’t the case.
“I showed them which equipment would be available through the T-300 and then obviously the equipment I would not be able to bid,” Helper said. “We put that all together in a very short time because of their time frame. We handed it to [former 911 board attorney] Bill Wasden and he worked with his contact at the state of Alabama, who said this was probably not the original intent of the T-300 contract.”
Helper said the state’s position actually implied Motorola may have used the T-300 contract in a matter other than was originally intended as well. As has been previously reported, Motorola would later ask for an extension once the project was sent out for competitive bidding — a request that was ultimately denied.
After Wasden conferred with the state, the board issued a request for proposals so the project could be bid competitively. In the expedited time allowed, Harris was the only company to submit a bid for the project, but there were initially questions about whether Harris, which had already helped outline most of the project, also helped Director of Public Safety Communications Eric Linsley write technical bid specifications for the project.
Despite 911 Director Gary Tanner making similar comments in an open meeting, Linsley has denied any involvement with Harris during the time the final bid specifications for the project were being crafted.
When he asked about the company’s involvement after the request for proposals went out, Helper said, “I’m going to answer you this way: Corey Helper was not involved in that.”
“Obviously at a point when the request for proposals is released, there is a silent period where we cannot initiate contact,” Helper said. “Anything we needed a response to regarding the RFP, we could ask Gary Tanner, but we couldn’t call on a regular-business basis.”
Helper also discussed briefly his interactions with Linsley, whose ties to Harris user groups and working relationship to Ruffer has put him at the center of many questions about the bid process that landed Harris the $40 million contract in 2013.
As of Tuesday, private investigators hired by the current 911 board have been unable to interview Linsley or Ruffer because the pair has refused to be interviewed separately.
“From a communications standpoint, long before this project we worked daily with Eric, and he reported directly to Joe Ruffer. So, inherently, Mr. Ruffer would be a part of those discussions as well,” Helper said. “To answer your question, no matter what, we were going to be working with those two gentlemen.”
Despite Linsley’s extensive work for the 911 board, he is and has always been an employee of Mobile County working in the public works department overseen by Ruffer, who was a founding member of the 911 board. Though the Mobile County Commission appointed the board’s members, they are completely separate entities.
Despite the 911 board paying maintenance costs of approximately $264,000 per year, the county actually owns the current system. At one point, the 911 board was planning to take over the county’s ownership of the emergency radio network through a deal that would have included moving three employees to the 911 center on Zeigler Boulevard, including Linsley.
Though the reasons are unclear, that transfer was ultimately abandoned along with the board’s plans to take ownership of the system — something Helper said was “a bad choice.”
“These dollars that are being spent are not being spent out of county funds,” Helper said. “If [the 911 board] doesn’t do that, they’ll have to fund it differently. At that point, they’re letting politics take over and not letting the system work correctly. That’s what they fought for.”
Previously, Tanner said he personally hopes the county steps up to fund the maintenance and management of the system and lets “911 run 911.”