Houston continues with citywide e-mail plan, despite controversy

"It's unlikely that SimHouston will save the city money as expected."

'Houston Councilman Bruce Tatro

Houston officials have decided to push ahead with the contentious SimHouston project.

Through the project, the city intends to provide free software, e-mail and Internet access to all Houston residents who have a public library card.

Last month, the city council voted narrowly to continue the $9.5 million project with SimDesk Technologies Inc. of Houston, formerly known as Internet Access Technologies Inc. The contract has gone through several fits and starts.

The project erupted in controversy this summer when Houston councilman Bruce Tatro released documents he said showed that the SimHouston contract had been prearranged rather than fairly competed.

J. Dennis Piper, the former Houston CIO who guided the contract through approval, resigned in May and took a job as chief technology officer of San Diego County. Piper, who has denied that there were any shenanigans in the SimHouston contract process, left the San Diego job to return to Houston in October to face unrelated theft charges.

A Harris County grand jury last month indicted Piper for allegedly stealing $296,475 from Reliant Energy Inc. of Houston, where he worked before becoming Houston's CIO. Piper is currently free on $252,000 bond, Harris County assistant district attorney Lester Blizzard said.

All above-board

The city decided in October to defer payment to SimDesk while the inspector general investigated.

But a report last month found no wrongdoing in the SimDesk bidding process, and the city paid the company for the work it had done.

Houston's new CIO, Richard Lewis, described SimHouston as successful in the first phase of its three-phase deployment. The next phase will put the software on about 1,000 city agency desks, reducing costs for software licensing, hardware replacement and support, he said.

The third phase, a broader public deployment beginning next month, will let Houstonians download SimHouston from a Web site or pick up a CD at 50 to 100 city locations, Lewis said.

Tatro has drawn legal fire for his comments about SimHouston. In late November, attorneys Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison LLP of Austin, Texas, asked the councilman to 'cease and desist from making any further disparaging or defamatory statements about SimDesk's products.'

The law firm, representing SimDesk, said Tatro has 'repeatedly made false and slanderous statements to cities, counties, states and media outlets' by calling SimHouston a sham. The firm threatened to seek damages in excess of $100 million.

Tatro said he does not believe the controversy 'will simply go away, since the administration still plans to put [the software] on city computers and save millions by converting city employees to this new software. That ought to be a hoot.'

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