Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
The state Attorney General’s Office, the state auditor and the New Mexico State Ethics Commission are being asked to investigate allegations that two top officials at the state Children, Youth and Families Department improperly steered a multimillion dollar information systems contract to a California firm without going to competitive bid.
In a complaint filed last week, two former CYFD employees contend an investigation is needed into whether state and federal laws were broken in the agency’s hiring of Binti Inc., which is headquartered in Oakland, California.
The 11-page complaint was signed by Cliff Gilmore, who served as CYFD’s public information officer, and his wife, Debra Gilmore, who had headed CYFD’s Office of Children’s Rights. Both were fired May 6 after less than a year on the job. They previously filed a whistleblower lawsuit in state District Court in Santa Fe alleging they were terminated for raising questions about the hiring of Binti, among other issues.
Their new complaint seeking the investigations accuses CYFD Cabinet Secretary Brian Blalock and CYFD Deputy Secretary Terry Locke of contracting with Binti “without any known sole source justification,” knowing “there are at least 20 competitors in the marketplace.”
The complaint contends Blalock and Locke violated New Mexico law by devising a method to make Binti a sole source provider on the estimated $45 million information systems upgrade, which has experienced delays and budget increases. The complaint states that the total value of the CYFD contract-in-process with Binti is about $16 million.
In response to questions about details of Binti’s hiring and the new complaint, CYFD spokesman Charlie Moore-Pabst sent the Journal an email on Thursday stating CYFD hadn’t yet responded formally to the allegations.
“… These unfounded allegations will be responded to thoroughly, legally and factually. The Gilmores and their associates want to try the case in the media and outside the forum they have chosen without the processes and rules in place for fact finding, discovery and the opportunity to fairly present defenses to the allegations rather than respond to hints and innuendos.
“Be assured we fully intend to vigorously defend the baseless allegations raised in the litigation and before the Ethics Commission. We will not engage in attempts to politicize these matters nor litigate them in the press or news media.” The email didn’t provide any specifics on the procurement.
Meanwhile, Binti CEO Felicia Curcuru told the Journal in an email, “I highly encourage you to spend time with the NM team to dig in and understand versus just reporting on what this complaint says because we have followed all procurement regulations and guidance from NM’s procurement team.” She added that the complaint filed by the Gilmores, “over-simplifies and mischaracterizes the procurement.”
In late 2018, Binti and more than 20 other firms responded to a request for information CYFD issued to solicit ideas on modernizing or replacing CYFD’s 22-year-old child welfare information system.
The path to hiring a vendor changed direction in early 2019 when Blalock and his wife, Linnea Forsythe, were recruited from their jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area to work for the incoming administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the complaint states. Forsythe became the state’s Long Term Care ombudsman, but has since moved to the post of interim director of the Governor’s Commission on Disability.
Allegations of pressure
Months after his appointment as CYFD Cabinet secretary in 2019, Blalock “pressured CYFD staff to contract with a specific vendor, Binti, for New Mexico’s multi-million dollar CCWIS (comprehensive child welfare information services) project,” the complaint states. It also alleges Blalock told a CYFD chief information officer at the time that his wife “is good friends with the owner” of Binti.
Binti’s CEO Curcuru told the Journal in an email this week she is not friends with Blalock’s wife, and has met her once, a couple of months ago.
Binti is a start-up firm launched around 2016 or 2017 that specialized in foster care and adoption software, but at the time Blalock directed his staff to contract with Binti, the firm had developed only two child welfare modules – while the CYFD system to be replaced, called FACTS, has over 50 processes, the complaint by the Gilmores alleges.
The complaint states that Blalock sent a May 19, 2019, email to two managers raising the idea of awarding a sole source contract to Binti or publishing a request for proposals. He asked how long it would take to do “the shortest RFP we can manage.” A request for proposal typically seeks competitive bids from vendors.
By early 2020, CYFD decided to hire Binti through a master statewide price agreement with another IT company, the complaint states. Price agreements allow government entities to buy from vendors at a set price.
The complaint cites a March 9, 2020, email from CYFD chief procurement officer, Lucy Vigil-Rendon, who stated, “As we are without a valid Procurement Method for Binti Inc., this vendor was added as an authorized manufacturer” at CYFD’s request after the master price agreement was executed.
By taking those steps, Rendon stated, “I believe that our ability to purchase this (Software as a Service) Platform at the best obtainable price has not been met, and that we have failed to provide fair and equitable treatment of all persons involved in public procurement, to maximize the purchasing value of funds and to provide safeguards for maintaining a procurement system of quality and integrity.”
Nevertheless, she stated, there was an established procurement method and what she understood to be an “executive directive” to follow through with the purchase.
CYFD’s hiring of Binti was announced in June 2020 on the Government Technology website, which quoted Blalock as saying the “state chose Binti not only because it fit their criteria, but because word-of-mouth backed them up,” the complaint states.
State Auditor Brian Colón told the Journal this week his office had opened an examination of the allegations.
“As always, we encourage the public to contact our agency in cases of waste, fraud and abuse and that includes concerns with procurements,” Colón said.
Matt Baca, with the office of State Attorney General Hector Balderas, told the Journal Wednesday in an email, “I can confirm that we have received a complaint on this matter, and we are working with the General Services Department and the Department of Finance and Administration to ensure that all appropriate procurement processes and rules are complied with.”
It wasn’t immediately clear on Thursday how the State Ethics Commission would handle the complaint.