Claiborne action to purchase phones improper|[01/18/07]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 18, 2007

Claiborne County spent $250,000 or more related to its troublesome new phone system without proper bidding or documentation, records requested by The Vicksburg Post show.

The attorney for the board of supervisors, Mike Espy, agrees that James Miller, county administrator, signed off on business agreements and payments to vendors &#8220without due authority,” but added the actions were taken in good faith.

The newspaper requested minutes, bid notices, contracts and other records from supervisors Dec. 15. They turned the matter over to Espy who, after asking for more than the state-allowed 14 days, complied in full, providing more than 200 documents last week. The Jackson-based attorney said he has also been making the case to state officials that no cause for alarm exists.

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&#8220It’s just that it wasn’t handled properly,” Espy said. &#8220Contracts with (Delta Communication) should have been signed and placed on board minutes. The relationship between the county, NetComp (which chose the system to buy) and CitiCorp (which financed the deal) should have been official, and the county needs to take action to ratify this.”

Specifically to Delta, based in Vicksburg, the records show $68,188.81 paid between Feb. 22, 2005, and Aug. 2, 2006, apparently for consulting or, perhaps, service calls.

&#8220There are no minutes which reflect an agreement between Claiborne County and Delta Communications,” Espy wrote. &#8220I can find no indication that this agreement was ever signed by a Claiborne County official, elected or appointed, and therefore was never presented to the board for official action.”

The records request was prompted by a series of reports last fall and through the Christmas holidays by 24-year Sheriff Frank Davis that his phones weren’t working for days at a time and that getting them back in service was problematic because no one seemed to know what to do. Davis also commented that he didn’t know why the county had purchased a new phone system because nothing was wrong with the system in use.

Espy continued in a cover letter sent with the documents, &#8220It is acknowledged that there are currently no minutes concerning this subject as the Claiborne County board has not taken any official action in the matter. It is now known, understood and acknowledged that the administrator, without due authority but with good intent, did sign the NetComp contract for the purchase and installation of the phone and computer systems.”

Miller, who was suspended in September pending Espy’s initial investigation of the county’s business ventures with communications companies, was cleared in October by Espy and supervisors of wrongdoing.

Miller conceded Wednesday he signed agreements and checks not approved by supervisors, who employ him.

&#8220I admit there were some mistakes made,” he said. &#8220I acted hastily, but there was never any intent on my part to ever steal anything. I promise you I never stole anything.”

An official with Mississippi Auditor Phil Bryant’s office, wishing to remain unidentified because he was prohibited from speaking on specific cases or investigations, explained the correct process:

&#8220The way our laws work with buying a new telephone system or buying pieces of equipment, it requires (county officials) to develop specifics and advertise their desire to receive bids,” he said. &#8220They can advertise details of the specifications or that people can pick up details. They must open bids, evaluate them and award the bid to the lowest and best bidder. It all has to be done in an open meeting and should be in the minutes.”

State law also provides that any official who spends public money without legal authorization can be required to repay the treasury. It was not known whether Bryant’s office or any other agency was pursuing that alternative.

Espy, a former member of Congress and Secretary of Agriculture, was appointed interim attorney in March 2006 following the slaying of longtime attorney Allen Lamar Burrell. The suspect in that case, fired former road manager Carl Brandon, is also accused of firing shotgun blasts the same morning into Miller’s home.

Espy indicated the process of acquiring the phones began before his tenure, but he was satisfied neither Miller nor any other county official profited from the deal.

&#8220I wasn’t the attorney at the time, but I did do an investigation in conjunction with Attorney General’s Office,” Espy said. &#8220All of the equipment is there, all invoices and payments matched, and no one stole anything.”

The sequence shows that Miller approved lease agreements with CitiCapital, the company that financed the equipment, and NetComp, the company that chose and installed the Cisco phone system.

In July 2005, Miller approved a NetComp purchase order for $177,000 to cover the cost of doing business with the company. He subsequently signed a 48-month lease with CitiCapital, at $4,336.05 a month.

The Cisco system provided by NetComp and financed through CitiCapital replaced an Avaya system, which Miller called &#8220outdated.”

But the replacement did require a buyout, because the county was still liable for payments to Avaya. According to records, Miller received a buyout quote from Avaya Financial Services Aug. 7, 2005, on two accounts – one for $26,687.44 and the other for $509.60. Both were paid Sept. 6, 2006.

Rather than the county taking bids, NetComp had been empowered to make the selection.

&#8220NetComp was selected pursuant to a bid system where there were three companies that bid,” Espy said. &#8220Its job was to purchase, install and train. After all that was done, then it falls on a systems technician to manage it, which was Delta Communications.”

Delta, Miller said, had first been hired in April 2004 as officials discussed the need for improved emergency communications and operations on the eventuality that a second nuclear power plant might be built in the county. Entergy now operates Grand Gulf Nuclear Station in the county and a consortium of power companies is seeking a permit, good for 50 years if granted, to add another unit.

&#8220When we got wind of the fact that Entergy Corporation was entertaining the notion of building a second unit out here, there was some serious gaps in our emergency preparedness,” Miller said. &#8220I proposed an in-depth assessment of our community needs in order to support emergency preparedness, and the board agreed to that.”

Furthermore, Miller said, the county &#8220didn’t have an internal (information technology) person because we couldn’t afford it. Delta was serving as our IT based on the assessment the board approved in 2004.”

From there, Espy wrote, Delta was &#8220selected to conduct the survey of the phone system and the NetComp proposal was approved and signed by the Claiborne County administrator without the benefit of a signed contract with Delta Communications.”

The owner of Delta Communications, Edwin Mitchell, has repeatedly refused to comment on the company’s relationship with Claiborne County. But Espy said Wednesday county officials have decided to hire the telecommunications division of Alcorn State University, in nearby Lorman, to be its new vendor of services Delta had been paid to provide.

&#8220The county decided to move forward with another technician,” he said. &#8220We will be approving (today) a transition contract, which gives Delta so many weeks to conclude its relationship with the county and to train the new vendor and work with it to get it up to speed on equipment.”

If that contract is written, it will be the first signed deal with Delta, which could not be found among listings of Mississippi corporations licensed to do business with public entities.

The records show at least one heated exchange. On Sept. 13, Espy sent a letter to Mitchell, saying in part, &#8220There are a number of vexing issues yet to be resolved between Delta Communications and Claiborne County.”

It went on to say that &#8220Mr. Troy Kimble (working as a technician) in an unlawful, unilateral and unprofessional manner has apparently disconnected certain phone, e-mail and IP (Internet) services which the county is obliged to provide for the benefit of the public.”

The attorney called Kimble’s alleged actions &#8220premature, impulsive and unwarranted.”

Two days later, Mitchell sent Kimble an e-mail, asking him to restore Claiborne County’s network and e-mail and telling him neither he nor Delta Communications gave him the &#8220authority” to disable the system. Mitchell told Kimble &#8220the lack of cooperation will only delay a reasonable solution.”

In his two-page response later that day, Kimble told Mitchell he would &#8220do no such thing” and that the &#8220system will not be enabled until I am compensated in full for the services that have been provided.” He also said in the message he only wanted &#8220what is due to me” and that he had worked &#8220in this environment for almost four years and have encountered this type of tyranny throughout the process.”

Kimble, a Vicksburg police officer, has disputed Espy’s allegations and been cleared of improper action.

In addition to the $68,000, Mitchell sent two invoices dated Oct. 27 to Claiborne supervisors for $727.59 and $96.57 for meetings with officials and for troubleshooting.