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Transparency developers say Senate leaders had access to site for more than a year

It remains one of the most perplexing questions surrounding the tug of war over the Senate's now-defunct Transparency 2.0 web site: Why would Senate leaders pay $5 million for a budget transparency web site for members but let it sit idle for more than a year until the contract expired?

Now, a letter from the developers of the web site to Senate President Don Gaetz reveals that user names and logins were provided to 58 Senate members and staff in 2011, including Gaetz himself. It doesn't answer the question but sheds some light on the he-said/she-said nature of this kerfuffle.  Download Mattson Response to Senator Gaetz

Gaetz told the Herald/Times in December that he had no recollection of ever getting a log-in for the web site that was set up under previous Senate President Mike Haridopolos to offer unprecedented access to state budget documents and accounting. He said he was underwhelmed by the performance of the web site, when he saw it demonstrated, and disappointed in its cost.

"I was a senator a year ago,'' Gaetz said. "I don’t remember anybody ever saying: ‘here’s your access code.’ I’ve asked for a list of all those who used the data and how often they used it so I could get a sense of the utility.”

The company, Spider Data Systems, provided Gaetz with the list of users earlier this month. It not only includes Gaetz but five other Senate leaders, including Sens. John Thrasher, Andy Gardiner, JD Alexander, Lizbeth Benacquisto and former Senate President Mike Haridopolos. So, why didn't the Senate use this high-priced tool?

In a  letter to Gaetz and members of the Senate Government Operations and Accountability Committee sent Wednesday, Spider Data president Anna Mattson noted that "demonstrations of the product were conducted for Senate leadership and staff.  However, upon completion and delivery of the product to the Senate, no formal roll-out of the product to all Senators and Committee Staff was announced or scheduled by the Senate President’s office even though Spider Data had been informed that this would occur in December 2011.   

"Spider Data worked closely with the Senate Chief Information Officer to schedule multiple educational opportunities; however, they were all subsequently rescheduled and ultimately cancelled by the Senate." Download Mattson January 23

In the Jan. 10 letter to Gaetz, Mattson also suggests that Gaetz and three other senators, as well as Gov. Rick Scott, were given a demonstration of the web site in November 2011.

On Saturday, the Senate invited Mattson to appear before the Senate Gov Ops Committee when it meets on Thursday to discuss the fate of the state's many transparency web sites. The committee has also invited the staff of Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater to attend. In her letter to the committee, Mattson said she has "made previous commitments and I am unable to attend."

The Transparency 2.0 web site provides users with the power to search contracts, personnel, accounting and budget documents. Web sites maintained by the CFO, the Legislature or the governor do not provide those search functions. For example, the existing web sites offer no easy way to search the contracts associated with each line item in the state budget, or to conclude which vendors and which lobbyists were given the most state business, or which line items were inserted by leadership into the budget outside of the committee process.

Mattson also used her letter to focus blame on the Senate for lack of access to the site. The committee spent much of its last meeting deriding Mattson's web site. Committee Chairman Jeremy Ring suggested the company took advantage of the state contract to get reimbursed for its development costs and Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Ormond Beach, said the contract negotiated in secret had become "a debacle."

Meanwhile, Ring said that neither he nor any members of the committee, had seen the web site. "It has to do with licensing cost,'' he said.

Under the contract negotiated by Haridopolos and Spider Data Systems, the Senate would obtain 600 licenses for the exclusive use of senators and staff through December 2012. The contract then required the state to pay $1 million a year more to retain access to the licenses. 

There was no mention in the contract of making the information available to the public and, Mattson said in her letter, "to make the site available to the public would require a change in the contract which Spider could not unilaterally accomplish."

Mattson told the committee she would make the logins available to them again so they could review the site without the additional cost.

Although Gaetz, Ring, and other senators refuse to blame Haridopolos, they have all criticized the contract as a bad deal for taxpayers. Gov. Rick Scott has said he will issue an request for proposal to build a different statewide web site. Mattson said she will submit a bid.

Ring said last week his committee will write a bill to consolidate nine different state web sites and start over. A key question: how quickly will they get the new transparency web site running?

The Herald/Times asked Haridopolos last week why he did not inform Senators and staff that the web site had been developed. He refused to answer. “I think we had the most transparent budget process ever,'' he replied.

There was, however, a political downside to making the budget as transparent as Transparency 2.0 would have offered. Had the system gone live, senators and their staff would have been able to see that Haridopolos' office inserted at least two items into the budget to benefit lobbyists close to him. One was a $6 million steered to Evidence Based Associates, a Washington-based probation program. Another was $6 million to expand the law enforcement radio system for a vendor in his district. The governor's agencies didn't ask for the projects, but the governor didn't veto them either.

Will the governor and legislators allow for that kind of transparency with their budget this year? It's another of the unanswered questions.