From the VA Pilot
Closed doors open up questions about Va.’s IT deal
Two of the state’s top technology officials are being called to testify before a government panel on open record laws about why aspects of Virginia’s plan to privatize its computer systems were discussed behind closed doors.
The state’s 10-year, $2 billion contract with Northrop Grumman Corp. has come under increased scrutiny of late.
Key deadlines have been missed, and state agencies have complained about billing problems and poor services. A recent survey shows that state employees grade the computer assistance provided as average, at best.
In April, a hacker breached a state prescription-monitoring Web site , putting at risk a database that contained millions of patient records. Two months later, the database is not fully restored, and health care providers must call the state to check the records.
Information security is one of Northrop Grumman’s duties under the contract.
Earlier this month, Lemuel Stewart Jr., the state’s chief information officer, was removed from his job after he suggested withholding payment of a $14 million invoice from Northrop Grumman.
Stewart’s replacement is new state Technology Secretary Len Pomata, who was grilled Monday by legislators about the closed-door meetings in April and June and delayed progress on a statewide computer system upgrade.
Pomata and James McGuirk II, chairman of the Information Technology Investment Board that held the private meetings, have been asked to appear at an upcoming meeting of the Freedom of Information Advisory Council.
The request is a bit of a departure for the council, which usually responds to requests for opinions rather than conducting its own investigations.
“I thought there was going to be smoke. I didn’t know there was going to be a forest fire,” House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, a Salem Republican who chairs the council, said after listening to Pomata testify Monday.
During a House of Delegates committee hearing, Del. Sam Nixon, R-Chesterfield, raised questions about the legality of holding portions of the recent IT investment board meetings away from the public’s view.
Nixon carried the 2003 bill creating the IT investment board and the chief information officer position.
He also chided Pomata for jointly serving as the interim chief information officer, technology secretary and a board member, noting that the original intent was to keep those positions separate.
Others raised concerns about the cost to taxpayers.
“We have the responsibility to see if this is the best value for the commonwealth,” said Del. Bob Marshall, R-Prince William.
Inked in 2005, the deal was billed as one that would provide significant savings to the state by capping technology spending at $236 million annually.
While spending has been within the cap, to date some of the savings originally promised have not been realized.
Among the deadlines Northrop Grumman has missed: Transformation of the state’s infrastructure was supposed to be completed by Wednesday but is running six months behind schedule.
Pomata acknowledged that “service levels in general are below expectations.”
Yet the most outspoken critics stopped short of calling for the contract to be voided.
In an e-mail, Northrop Grumman spokeswoman Christy Whitman said there have been challenges in the “complex and unprecedented undertaking” of “modernizing outdated and inefficient technology ” but predicted ultimate success.
Also investigating the technology pact is a state Senate subcommittee chaired by Sen. Yvonne Miller, D-Norfolk. That panel met Monday at the same time as the House of Delegates committee.
Julian Walker, (804) 697-1564, firstname.lastname@example.org