Nov. 4 2015 03:35 PM

Controller told of ethics concerns last spring, Byrum says

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum said the county’s top appointed official was warned about allegations of improper vendor and staff relationships in the county Information Technology Depart ment in April — but took no action until City Pulse requested documents that revealed the extent of the ethical breaches in that department.

County Clerk Barb Byrum said she told Controller and Administrator Tim Dolehanty in an April 28 meeting attended by Republican County Commissioner Robin Case Naeyaert that she was concerned about rumors of unethical conduct by officials in the IT department. She also complained about the department’s poor response and performance of the department.

Confirming the meeting in GOP caucus room in the county’s historic courthouse, Naeyaert said, “I did not follow up on it be cause I believed that the controller heard those concerns and was taking action. It’s all been played very close to the vest.”

Dolehanty denied being at the meeting, adding, "nor do I recall any such conversation on April 28," he said in an email /. "All issues presented to me by the Clerk were by way of Email."

For his part, Dolehanty has contended he knew nothing of the allegations of wrongdoing until last month when the county began processing a Freedom of Information Act request from City Pulse. Those documents were flagged over ethical breaches, and Dolehanty fired Michael Ashton, the county’s chief information officer, within a day after City Pulse obtained the documents. Ashton was dismissed from his $110 ,824 a year job for violating the county ethics policy.

That policy states: “The County’s employees, directors, appointed or elected officials, volunteers, or agents shall neither solicit nor accept gratuities, favors, gifts, consulting fees, trips, or anything having a monetary value in excess of twenty-five dollars ($25.00) from a vendor, potential vendor, from the family or employees of a vendor, contractors or parties to subcontracts.”

Dolehanty said in an interview Monday that the county does not have the “time or resources” to investigate “rumors.” This past week, additional documents obtained by City Pulse using Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act have revealed a deeper pattern of favors to IT department staff from county technology services contractors. A criminal investigation of their actions by the Mason Police Department has begun.

Byrum acknowledged that she had no evidence of wrongdoing at the time she raised her concerns.

“The fact is that we are all responsible for how taxpayer money is being spent and to make sure it is being spent properly,” Byrum said “When concerns are brought forward, they need to be investigated promptly and thoroughly, not pushed aside. When that happens, we’re doing a disservice to the taxpayers.”

Case Naeyaert said she can understand how Dolehanty may have not taken action on Byrum’s complaint. She said the revelations came in the middle of a heated, months-long campaign by the clerk to address a series of serious technology-related issues. Some of those issues were costing taxpayers money and disrupting the operation of the clerk’s office, Bryum said.

The Republican lawmaker from Mason said in the midst of such an acrimonious situation, she can understand how an administrator —not just Dolehanty — could dismiss “rumors” of improper conduct.

But as Bryum tells it, the technology infrastructure at the county was in shambles.

New phones purchased earlier this year for $1.6 million from Cisco through Wyoming Mich., based contractor ISI didn’t work. Staff in the clerk’s office couldn’t forward incoming calls to other departments. The phones sometimes simply stopped working altogether. Voicemail that was being sent to emails stopped being forwarded, started again, then stopped.

And while the new voice-over-Internet phones were running amuck, new fax systems installed in the clerk’s office weren’t accepting faxed orders for death certificates from funeral homes, harming the work flow in the office.

A technical glitch on the website resulted in credit cards being declined to pay for death certificates — costing the county money and taxpayers frustrations.

Add to all that frustration outdated computer programming — the office was operating on Windows XP until earlier this year — and outdated computers and the image emerges of a crippled office responsible for the county’s most important public documents, such as death and marriage certificates and concealed weapons permits.

Byrum sent numerous emails about the lack of responsiveness to her technology woes to elected and appointed officials. It was against that backdrop that she raised concerns about rumors of allegations of improper relationships with contractors by county IT staff.

The conversation among the GOP commissioner, Byrum and Dolehanty occurred just days after Byrum sent an email to Ingham County Commissioner Chairman Brian McGrain, and County Services Committee Chairman Victor Celentino raising concerns about the “favored” status of an IT vendor.

Concerns were raised by Byrum following two separate meetings at the county. One dealt with recording equipment and technology upgrades for the circuit court; the other was about upgrading the technology and hardware to record and video county commission meetings. The meetings were supposed to be between circuit court staff and county clerk staff and the county’s technology department, represented by Ashton.

But also participating in the meetings was a county contractor, Carousel Industries, which provides video and other services and was representing Palo Alto Networks, which was seeking to sell firewall services.

That a contractor was present at these sessions seemed unusual to Byrum.

The meetings were preliminary discussions about technology upgrade needs for both departments, and no request for proposals had yet been developed for the projects.

She followed the meeting with an email raising concerns that there had been no competitive bidding and that no vendors other than Carousel Industries had been contacted for either project.

“The similarity in these two situations is concerning to me as to why this vendor seems to be so favored,” Byrum wrote in an April 23 email to McGrainand Commissioner Victor Celentino, chairman of the county services committee. County services oversees county operations, including facilities and information technology issues.

Dolehanty called Byrum’s pointing toward the April 23 email “disingenuous.” He said he saw the presence of the vendor, which is also a preferred vendor through Michigan’s purchasing program MIDEAL, was not an uncommon or inappropriate action.

“I saw that as the department trying to address her concerns as quickly as possible,” McGrain said.

In a phone interview last week, Mc- Grain said the reference to the vendor relationship raised by Byrum could easily have been lost in the “pages of emails” she was sending to both himself and Celentino to address her technology issues.

Byrum said that Dolehanty “has the responsibility to investigate these concerns, especially when they are brought to him by an elected official.”

County committee asks legal advice for possible ethics reforms

Ingham County commissioners asked its attorneys Tuesday night to determine what policy issues need to be addressed in order to more readily detect unethical conduct by county employees.

County Services Committee members made the request in light of the dismissal of Michael Ashton, the chief of the Information Technology Department. Ashton was let go for ethics violations after emails sought by City Pulse revealed he was taking sports tickets and attending outings at the expense of vendors.

The committee will meet again Nov. 17 to review resolutions to extend the county's employee ethics policy to vendors and contractors. Commissioners have also asked for proposed updates to the ethics policy. Such updates would clarify questions such as whether the $25 gift limit is for a single gift or cumulative.

Also on tap for that meeting is a review of a resolution adopting a clear whistleblower policy. Right now the county does not have such a policy, only statements that retaliation against employees who file complaints or raise concerns is unacceptable.