CYFD employees say they were dismissed or fired due to concerns over software contract | Local News
In late 2019, Jackson Williams, head of a data unit at the New Mexico Department of Children, Youth, and Families, raised his hand at a business meeting to ask questions about a massive upgrade to the the agency’s computer system – an upgrade that could potentially cost $ 45 million. the next decade.
Led by Cabinet Secretary Brian Blalock, a transplant from the San Francisco Bay Area, CYFD had selected a young California company named Binti to lead the redesign, seemingly disregarding the more than 20 other companies that have expressed interest. for work.
“Who is Binti and why are they in charge of this project? Williams asked.
Within days, Williams said he had been pulled from the retrofit project. Shortly after, he received a letter of reprimand from his supervisor claiming that he had violated the CYFD code of conduct by “stepping out of the chain of command” when he expressed his concerns about Binti. Williams then resigned from the department.
He wouldn’t be the last.
At least half a dozen high-profile employees have been reprimanded, resigned or fired after asking questions about Binti Inc., the Oakland, Calif.-Based tech company, now responsible for overhauling the system, according to interviews. computer science.
“I felt like I was doing the right thing in raising these issues, and instead I was let go,” said one of the deceased workers who, like others interviewed for this story, asked not to be named for fear of further reprisals.
Some employees expressed concern that Binti had not been properly analyzed or reviewed. Others questioned whether a company that was just over a year old when it won the contract could be trusted to modernize one of the state’s most critical and complex systems. Other staff questioned why Binti was selected without a competitive bidding process.
Taken together, their departures represent a waste of decades of experience and expertise at the agency tasked with ensuring the welfare of New Mexico’s children.
“Binti is the sacred cow of CYFD – you just can’t touch it,” said Williams, who has over 20 years of computer engineering experience in both government and the private sector. “Any question about this results in very quick retaliation. “
CYFD officials vigorously deny that there was any retaliation.
“CYFD has not sanctioned or terminated any employee for raising concerns, asking questions or filing complaints about the [modernization] nor Binti’s supply, ”wrote CYFD spokesman Charlie Moore-Pabst in a July 21 email.
The stakes are huge: CYFD’s decades-old computer system, an outdated program called FACTS, tracks everything about the thousands of children in the department’s care, from adoption to juvenile detention to cases of abuse in foster homes. Binti, who has received $ 446,000 to date, according to state records, will need to develop a brand new program that can support and enhance all of these functions.
Launched in 2017, Binti has landed contracts with 160 state and local governments, mainly for software that facilitates the placement and adoption of foster families. Binti’s software has been recognized for making the foster care process more user-friendly and efficient.
But the company never undertook the kind of complex and comprehensive system it was commissioned to build for CYFD.
“New Mexico would be the first state” to use Binti for its comprehensive child protection information system, said Felicia Curcuru, CEO of Binti. “It’s very exciting for us.
She said the company was fully equipped to meet the requirements of the project and offered a low-risk way to create the software: “The state doesn’t need to pay us if we don’t deliver. “
Binti has been disqualified from competitive bids in several other states, including Maine and Louisiana, due to his low scores.
“It’s not just an abstract, unimportant computer program,” said Katherine Ortega Courtney, former CYFD office manager who is now a data expert at a child welfare institute in New Mexico. “Each of these data points is the real life of a child.”
If the system fails, the state will not know where the children are or what is happening to them.
The federal government, which CYFD hopes will fund the vast majority of upgrade spending, has specific rules defining the acceptable process for contracting with a software vendor. With few exceptions, States must go through a competitive bidding process and a thorough analysis of the project’s needs, scope and costs.
Bypassing these procedures not only risks taxing the state with an below average software system, but could also leave New Mexico taxpayers forced to pay the full price.
The federal government has reported a number of issues of non-compliance with the Binti contract, including CYFD’s claim that Binti was a ‘one-stop shop’ – a term used when only one company is able to meet the contract. .
Prior to Blalock’s arrival in 2019, the CYFD began the procurement process by issuing a formal request for information – the first step in a competitive process, in which companies showcase their capabilities and offer demonstrations of their product. Respondents included several large companies, such as Deloitte and IBM.
“They asked us to submit a plan, and then they didn’t even respond to our emails,” said the CEO of one of the companies that submitted a proposal.
“They didn’t want to hear from anyone other than Binti,” added the CEO, who asked not to be identified. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
Meanwhile, CYFD staff and management communicated regularly with Binti, according to documents. Once at CYFD, Blalock began working with Curcuru to draft agreements on Google Docs.
The controversies surrounding the Binti contract – and the consequences of its questioning – are representative of a broader culture of “don’t rock the boat” that has taken hold since Blalock took the helm, according to interviews with employees. Staff members who ask questions say they are considered insubordinate and can be punished accordingly.
“In recent years, the state has lost many veterans to the culture of intimidation and harassment of the CYFD administration,” said another employee who recently resigned after more than a decade. in the departement. “I personally know several people, including myself, who have been written to raise ethical concerns about things that go on within CYFD. Morale is extremely low.
Last month, two former employees – Debra and Cliff W. Gilmore – filed a whistleblower complaint saying they were wrongly fired in part because they asked about Binti.
The Gilmores, who were hired in late 2020 for high-level positions, had both repeatedly questioned the Binti contract, according to emails from CYFD. The lawsuit claims Cliff Gilmore was removed from the team after questioning the procurement process. The lawsuit further claims that Debra Gilmore received a letter of reprimand from Assistant Secretary Terry Locke shortly after expressing concerns over the state’s selection of “a California start-up that did not appear to have a full [plan for replacing the old FACTS system] nor significant experience in the field of child protection.
Cliff and Debra Gilmore had also sounded the alarm over the department’s policy of using an encrypted messaging app called Signal for official state business. As a May Searchlight investigation revealed, CYFD was configuring the app to automatically delete its Signal messages on an ongoing basis, a likely violation of public records laws. The department stopped using Signal in April, but still automatically deletes messages on another platform called Microsoft Teams.
On June 28, the Gilmores, along with Jill and Douglas Michel – two longtime foster parents in Albuquerque – jointly filed a formal complaint with the Inspector General of the Federal Department of Health and Human Services, as well as New Mexico Attorney General, Auditor and Ethics Commission, alleging that Blalock and Locke violated federal and state laws by awarding Binti a sole-source contract and giving him unfair benefits. CYFD denies all the allegations.
“We fully intend to vigorously defend the baseless allegations raised in litigation, other forums and through the media,” said spokesperson Moore-Pabst.
“Clues and innuendos are not facts or evidence,” he continued. “The project continues to be managed appropriately.
Nonetheless, emails obtained through a public registration request show that CYFD’s purchasing manager – who is responsible for overseeing contracts and ensuring the process complies with state law – has repeatedly challenged Binti’s contract, writing that the CYFD had not used a “procurement method.”
In an email to agency staff, that employee, Lucy Vigil Rendon, said Blalock issued an “executive directive” asking employees to make Binti the sole company responsible for overhauling the software system.
Vigil Rendon also protested the Binti contract in additional emails. The agency, she wrote, had not “provided guarantees to maintain a supply system of quality and integrity.”
Searchlight New Mexico is a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.