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Will botched transparency contract spawn reforms of how legislators govern themselves?

A botched $5.5 million state contract for a transparency web site, signed in secret by the chief of staff of a former Senate president, may have an unintended consequence: forcing legislators to follow the rules they require of everyone else.

Members of the Senate Government Operations and Accountability Committee declared the Transparency 2.0 web site an unlikely survivor as the committee moves to merge nine transparency web sites. The Senate let the contract lapse Dec. 31 and the committee is working to find a replacement. But the committee said the secretly-signed contract could force the Legislature to change its ways.

“We need to go a step further and make sure this doesn’t happen again,’’ said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, referring to the no-bid contract signed in 2011 between Spider Data Systems and Steve MacNamara, the former general counsel and chief of staff for former Senate President Mike Haridopolos.

Florida law imposes strict rules for contracts for state agencies and other entities, including when contracts must be put out to bid and when they can be deemed a sole source. But the Florida Legislature has exempted itself from those rules, enabling it to enter into sole-source contracts with little or no oversight.

In addition to the no-bid contract signed with Spider Data, presiding officers in recent years have used taxpayer money to hire contractors to build a House kitchen, develop software programs and hire former legislators and acquaintances as consultants.

According to a public records request, House Speaker Will Weatherford’s office has signed eight active contracts with vendors, including lawyers and software developers, valued at $639,000 a year.

Senate President Don Gaetz's office reports that it has one outstanding contract for $89,865 with former Department of Education budget expert Cecil Golden. None of the House and Senate contracts are available on any of the state transparency web sites but only available to the public through records requests.

The Senate committee on Thursday reviewed two of the state’s transparency web sites in an attempt to find an alternative to the Transparency 2.0 system developed by the Senate but which lawmakers allowed to sit idle for a year.

They vigorously discrediting the no-bid contract with Spider Data Systems, and committee chairman, Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, concluded the Senate will move forward with legislation to revise the state transparency law, even though he said it wasn’t clear which direction to go.

“Do we make it easier? Do we have the right content and do we put forth something to make sure we don’t have another Spider Data contract?” he said.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, said he had concluded that any new web site should not involved Spider Data. But Sen. William Montford, D-Tallahassee, said he wanted an accounting of how they landed the troubled contract in the first place.

“How did this happen?,’’ Montford said. “We’re talking about $5.5 million when state employees haven’t had a raise in six years. We owe it to our taxpayers.”

Ring and others berated the contract the Senate signed to build a Senate web site to be used for members to gain access to budget documents. Ring said it not only failed to give the state ownership of the site but its terms of use were “egregious to say the least” and anyone who attempted to make a screen shot of information captured on the site could set the state up for liability.

He said Senate President Don Gaetz was justified in letting the contract with Spider Data lapse because the $1 million maintenance fee, on top of the terms of use, were a bad deal for taxpayers.

“There is no way we can justify $1 million to use it,’’ he said.

Spider Data president Anna Mattson was asked to appear before the committee to demonstrate her web site but, in a Jan. 23 letter to the committee, said she had a previous commitment and could not attend.

She offered, however, to make logins available to members of the committee to review the site the Senate paid for since 58 senators and staff were given access to the site but never used it.

Mattson said the web site was available for the Senate to use in the fall of 2011 and repeated attempts to conduct training with senators and staff were canceled by Senate staff. Ring challenged her account, saying Senate leaders did not believe the web site was ready

Ring said that any future transparency web site should allow the state to own it, but should also be more useful for the public, unlike the array of the current sites.

“We have a pretty good sense of what the costs are going to be,’’ he said. “It’s clearly not $5.5 million. We could probably do it around $500,000 to $600,000” with maintenance of about $100,000 a year.”

After the meeting, Ring acknowledged that the fault for the contract doesn’t lie with Spider Data but with the state, although he wouldn’t blame Haridopolos or MacNamara.

“At the end of the day, it’s not who got the deal. It’s who gave the deal,’’ he said.

Why did Senate leaders let this site go for so long without demanding that it be used and functioning?

“I can’t answer why those questions weren’t asked,’’ Ring said. Maybe someone suspected there “great liability for use,”, adding he had no evidence of that.

Public interest groups from the First Amendment Foundation, Integrity Florida and Americans for Prosperity commended the Senate for its focus on transparency issues but expressed frustration at their attempts to pass blame on Spider Data.

“I’m bothered by the tone that somehow Spider Data is the villain here,’’ said Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation. It was the responsibility of the Senate to set the terms it agreed to, she said. “Who in the Senate didn’t do their due diligence?”

Americans for Prosperity of Florida, which has made government transparency a priority for the group, commended the committee but urged lawmakers to end no-bid contracts in the future.

“We hope that the members of the committee don’t become so focused on the previous contract that they lose site of the bigger picture here, which is providing citizens with access to the state’s records, budgets and contracts,” said Abilgail MacIver, president of the group.  

“…Ending the legislature’s current practice of awarding no-bid contracts while also providing public access for legislative spending would help prevent any future misuse of taxpayer dollars.”