Houston has a problem

Councilman questions contract set by city's former CIO

Houston councilman Bruce Tatro has released documents to support his claim that the city's SimHouston contract was prearranged, rather than fairly competed.

The $9.5 million project would offer 3 million Houston residents free e-mail, Internet access and software.

'The whole thing was cooked,' Tatro said. 'SimHouston is a sham.'

The city paid $42,000 to a public relations company, Weeks & Co. of Austin, Texas, to develop a marketing plan for the project. Draft marketing materials dated Nov. 14'three weeks before bids were due on Dec. 7'included a press release announcing Internet Access Technologies Inc. of Houston, makers of SimDesk, as the winner. The draft release had a space for a quote from Houston Mayor Lee P. Brown: 'The city council and I chose SimDesk/IAT because ... '

Tatro claimed that former Houston CIO J. Dennis Piper had dissuaded a Microsoft Corp. representative from submitting a bid for SimHouston. Piper resigned as CIO last month to take a job as chief technology officer for San Diego County.

A representative of Weeks & Co. said Piper gave the company the text for the press releases.

'It's an obligation of a CIO to throw the doors open to innovation, to invite as many proposals as possible,' Tatro said. Piper did just the opposite, he said.

Piper said he was limited in what he could say because of an investigation by Houston's inspector general and that he is focusing on his new San Diego job.

'There was no wrongdoing,' he said. 'Everything we did on this project was done properly.'

Going forward

Houston's IG is reviewing the bidding process to see whether any Texas laws were broken, Tatro said.

'I'm going to reserve comment, as I always do, on matters that are under investigation,' Brown said in a statement last week.

But the mayor plans to go forward with SimHouston. 'The project should not be delayed,' he said, because it is is 'a good project.'

Tatro voiced reservations about IAT's software, which he said Phoenix and San Francisco had rejected for citywide use.

'The SimDesk software just isn't robust enough,' he said, and Houston employees never tested it.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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