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Dis-CONNECT in who's to blame for troubled launch of $63-million website

A blame game between state officials and the vendor of a $63 million unemployment website spilled into the public this week, further complicating efforts by claimants to receive their jobless benefits while raising the spectre of a costly legal battle.

“We’re in a Mexican standoff,” said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice. “The state is withholding payment. The vendor isn’t fixing the problem. We can’t continue like this. We have to take action, and if they sue us, they sue us.”

Since the Oct. 15 launch of the CONNECT website, thousands of recipients have complained the new system won’t let them log on or register correctly, delaying the payment of benefits that has pushed many to the economic brink.

“I’m losing everything,” said Melissa Perkins, a 35-year-old Sarasota resident amid tears. “I don’t know what else I can do. I have to get people to pay my rent. I’ve worked my entire life since I was 15, and i’ve never asked anyone for anything. What can I do?”

On Thursday, the Department of Economic Opportunity, the agency in charge of the CONNECT website, announced it was doubling its staff of claims processors, at a price to be determined later, because of delays in the processing of claims.

Along with the announcement, the DEO’s executive director, Jesse Panuccio, added a message about Deloitte Consulting, the website’s vendor.

“We will continue to hold Deloitte accountable and I have asked them to devote whatever resources necessary to fix all remaining technical issues,” Panuccio said.

The state and Deloitte have clashed on the project. 

Last year, Department of Economic Opportunity officials considered firing Deloitte, which had well-publicized troubles with similar overhauls of unemployment sites in California and Massachusetts.

But this week was the latest reminder of Panuccio’s recently adopted get-tough public stance with Deloitte, the Minneapolis-based contractor the state hired in 2011 to upgrade and improve its claims system, which was more than 30 years old.

On Dec. 20, the state announced that it began enforcing a $15,000-per-business day penalty against Deloitte and was withholding $3 million from the vendor. It will be paid when CONNECT is "fully functioning."

"While Deloitte has made progress over the last few weeks, and many claimants are able to process claims without incident, the bottom line is that the overall system is still not working properly and the base code has not been stabilized," Panuccio said in last month’s release. "The people of Florida deserve better and, after two months, Deloitte's failure to provide this functionality is simply unacceptable."

Deloitte, in a letter to Panuccio on Thursday, said it “disagrees” with these damages.

Since Nov. 20, Deloitte has resolved “approximately 250 items and we resolved another 800 prior to the official start of warranty,” wrote Jessica Blue, the U.S. Public Sector Leader for Deloitte. “We are continuing to work with DEO to clarify the true nature of the remaining issues and holding ourselves strictly accountable for fixing warranted defects as quickly as possible.”

CONNECT is “already performing at or higher” than the previous system, Blue said in the letter. The problems encountered by claimants weren’t having issues with the website, but with the processing of claims that had nothing to do with technical issues but related to new practices stemming from the new system, Blue said.

“It is critical that we differentiate between issues where CONNECT is not working as designed versus modifications to the established design or new requirements that DEO would like CONNECT to support,” Blue said.

On Friday, Panuccio pushed back in a statement titled: “Setting Record Straight on Deloitte Penalty Response Letter.”

“We need more work from Deloitte computer programmers to fix the remaining problems plaguing CONNECT and less talk from their lawyers about why should not be penalized $15,000 a day for a system that’s still not working properly,” Panuccio said.

Panuccio claimed that of 102 “high-impact” issues, 24 have yet to be resolved. In addition, he said, DEO has identified 20 additional items that need to be fixed before the system will be deemed functional.

He disputed Blue’s claim that the problems in processing claims were unrelated to CONNECT’s technical difficulties.

“Staff has been able to meet pre-CONNECT levels not because of the new system, but despite the new system,” Panuccio said.

The back-and-forth was a head-snapping reversal in relations, at least publicly, between DEO and CONNECT.

During a Nov. 4 Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee, Panuccio and Blue appeared together, and were all smiles, in vowing to fix the problems together in no time.

Back then, it the media was the problem, as Panuccio blasted reporters for exaggerating the issues claimants were having with CONNECT.

Detert, who chaired the committee, thanked Blue for her presentation.

“I want to congratulate you on your honesty in your answers,” she said then.

Her warm feelings toward Deloitte were slipping away, she said Friday.

“It’s unfortunate because I congratulated them,” Detert said. “We might have to hire someone who can fix the problem.”