Getting Lonely at the Top

A recycled city official comes home to roost

The administration of Mayor Lee P. Brown has never been renowned for its smooth operations or operators, but the ride is really getting bumpy as the clock runs down on the mayor's third and final term. Nothing indicates that so much as its recent foibles in the realm of high technology.

In their push to award a $9.5 million lowbrow Internet-access software system to a favored vendor, Brown's administrators apparently fooled Internet giant Microsoft about the project's scope. With Bill Gates's minions on the sidelines, Unisys-backed Internet Access Technologies (IAT) wound up as the only bidder, gaining approval in a narrow 8-7 council vote.

Microsoft officials told councilmembers in the weeks after the vote that recently departed city chief information officer Denny Piper deceived them into thinking the project simply involved library users -- not the entire city workforce.

New old face: Lewis returns from the rubble of Arthur Andersen to bolster Brown's depleted ranks.
Deron Neblett
New old face: Lewis returns from the rubble of Arthur Andersen to bolster Brown's depleted ranks.

"They got caught with their pants down," says Councilmember Annise Parker, who met with the Microsofties. "They indicated they would have paid a lot more attention had they known this involved city business and not just free software in the library."

Councilman Bruce Tatro charges that Piper all but awarded the contract to IAT by putting specifications in the request for proposals (RFP) that could be met by only that firm. He says he has turned over documentation to the Harris County district attorney's office concerning possible violations of state bid laws.

"The RFP was tailored so that your initials almost had to be IAT," chuckles Tatro. "So you got Denny Piper running block and tackle, and telling Microsoft it didn't need to bother to respond."

It seems Brown and company also pulled a fast one last year by cutting a fat $210,000 technology consulting contract for the now-tottering accounting firm Arthur Andersen, a deal that Brown never even brought to council for a vote. Instead, the mayor's staff went through the Texas Procurement Center, a clearing house routinely used by municipalities to purchase computer equipment. City Council had earlier set a $30 million ceiling on expenditures through the center. But some members now say they never envisioned it would be used to slide consulting contracts around council, particularly one involving a former and future city official.

Piper denies showing any favoritism toward IAT, and says the scope of the project was clearly spelled out in the RFP. "I talk to Microsoft all the time about operating systems, so I'm not sure about being misled. I don't understand them saying that, and it's not true."

Arthur Andersen's point man on the project was none other than Richard Lewis, a former city deputy chief administrative officer who previously directed finance and administration. He left the city in November 2000 and scooted out the revolving door ahead of a new city ordinance that prohibited former city officials from doing business with the city for a year after their departure. Lewis immediately jumped on board the accounting firm and began working the city for contracts.

Lewis helped the firm snag that $210,000 consulting deal and worked with Piper to compile a strategic information-technology plan for the city. Then Andersen's Enron-related troubles escalated.

"On March 14, I saw the handwriting on the wall when the Justice Department opened a sealed indictment against the firm," recalls Lewis. "Arthur Andersen became radioactive at ground zero, and all of my clients were government clients, and there wasn't any way I was going to ask anyone to hire us."

However, the city was interested in hiring Lewis back. With Brown a lame duck, applicants are not exactly beating a path to the mayor's door. Lewis immediately became a front-runner to take over as Houston parks director, a job vacated by Oliver Spellman when he became Brown's chief of staff.

The picture changed when Piper unexpectedly resigned as technology chief in May, shortly before the council vote on the IAT contract. Since Piper had pushed the new computer system by promising to produce substantial savings, his quick exit to California both angered and puzzled councilmembers. The mayor's proposal to have Lewis replace Piper passed council last week in a 12-3 vote.

Councilman Carroll Robinson, chair of the Information and Technology Committee, says he was unaware of the city's contract with Arthur Andersen when he voted to hire Lewis.

"If they did that, I think they are going to have some serious problems," warns Robinson. "If I had known this, I damn sure wouldn't have voted [for Lewis] because this goes to the same problem people keep talking about: 'Tell us stuff and stop running backdoor dumb traps on people!' "

Parker was amazed that the deal got past council scrutiny. "That just boggles the mind," she says. "I hope it's not the case. It's not the Arthur Andersen and Richard Lewis connection that bothers me. It's the large amount of money that could be spent without council approval."

Lewis's boss, Don Hollingsworth, is also departing, expected to be replaced by Police Chief C.O. Bradford. It's another example of the self-cannibalization of the administration as its time in power dwindles. For anyone out there who would like to run a city department during the last months of Lee Brown: Freshen up those résumés and drop 'em off pronto on the third floor of City Hall.

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