An effort by two former top officials at the state Children, Youth and Families Department to award a no-bid multi-million dollar contract to a California firm didn’t violate state law, in part because they didn’t get a financial benefit in return, a state Ethics Commission hearing officer has concluded.
The hearing officer made the finding in dismissing a complaint alleging wrongdoing by former CYFD Cabinet Secretary Brian Blalock and his deputy Terry Locke, who were accused of improperly steering work on a new $45 million CYFD child welfare information system to Binti Inc., based in Oakland, California.
The ethics complaint was filed by Debra and Cliff Gilmore, two former top CYFD officials who were fired by Blalock in May 2021 after they say they raised concerns about the lack of a competitive process and questioned Blalock’s ties to Binti.
The investigation into the ethics complaint showed that Binti was among a group of tech companies Blalock had solicited help from in his prior job at a nonprofit in San Francisco.
But commission hearing officer Alan Torgerson wrote that, “There is no evidence to support the allegation that Blalock abused his office by advocating for Binti. In his capacity as Cabinet Secretary, Blalock had discretion to make choices.”
Binti initially supplied foster parent licensing and placement modules for CYFD, but was on tap to be awarded a $4.5 million contract to provide additional software licenses and services. That plan fizzled when Blalock resigned last August and the new CYFD administration opted to seek competitive bids for the project. The revamped procurement proposal has been awaiting approval at the federal level. Locke resigned last December.
The Gilmores, who were recruited from Washington state to work for CYFD in late 2020, have filed a whistleblower protection lawsuit against CYFD alleging they were retaliated against for questioning the hiring of Binti without a competitive bid, among other issues. Cliff Gilmore had worked as CYFD public information officer. Debra Gilmore was director of CYFD’s new Office of Children’s Rights.
CYFD has denied any wrongdoing or retaliation.
While that lawsuit is still pending, the investigation by the Ethics Commission’s general counsel found insufficient evidence to support the Gilmores’ allegations that Blalock and Locke violated the Governmental Conduct Act and the state Procurement Code in directing the IT work go to Binti. General Counsel Walker Boyd in April asked a hearing officer be appointed to dismiss the complaint.
Neither Locke nor Blalock, who is listed as a senior staff attorney at the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center, could be reached for comment Wednesday.
Cliff Gilmore, a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who previously worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Journal in an email:
“From the moment they knew they had a multi-million dollar project and pre-selected a vendor, they were circumventing state and federal procurement law.
“The dismissal rationale is the equivalent of saying they didn’t break the law because they had a driver’s license when the issue is they stole the car.”
An independent state audit report concluded in April that Blalock, shortly after his appointment to head CYFD, overrode state purchasing controls in focusing on Binti for the modernization of its 22-year-old child welfare information system.
The audit report noted that even though valid procurement “vehicles” were ultimately used to hire Binti, “there appears to be influence needing further review by oversight agencies.”
Before Blalock’s appointment, CYFD in 2018 sought requests for information for the project, which is required by the federal Administration for Children and Families. The state received responses from 35 companies, including Binti. But Blalock took the project in a different direction.
The Gilmores alleged in their complaint that Blalock at one point told another CYFD official that he was friends with Binti’s owner, Felicia Curcuru.
In a response to an interrogatory filed in the ethics case, Blalock wrote that he thought he first met Curcuru in 2016 at a conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, when he was director of the youth law practice at Bay Area Legal Aid.
He stated that he met her again when he was working at a nonprofit in San Francisco, “and had asked tech companies for help in brainstorming tech solutions to youth homelessness. Several companies provided free brainstorming meetings with our team.” Binti was one of them.
Blalock stated that neither he nor his wife or any family member has or had a financial interest in Binti.
Hearing officer Torgerson’s dismissal states that “it is not a per se violation of the Government Conduct Act for public officers or employees to have a personal relationship with a vendor who stands to benefit from a potential contract.” He added that “what’s missing in this case is a quid pro quo agreement.”
As to the procurement, Torgerson noted that Boyd “identified 33 different circumstances where the state may purchase goods or services without resorting to a competitive process.”
CYFD’s Chief Procurement Officer Lucy Vigil-Rendon told Boyd she initially refused to approve the contract with Binti, according to a summary of her interview.
So, she stated, “they went in and got creative with their purchasing.” CYFD issued several small purchase contracts to Binti and contacted a different firm already on a government price agreement to add Binti’s products to its pre-approved list. That permitted CYFD to choose Binti without going to competitive bid.
Vigil-Rendon told Boyd she felt her guidance was being ignored by CYFD project officials, and she felt constant pressure to approve the unusual procurement. She was a probationary employee at the time, and said she “was concerned that her employment would be terminated if she continued to oppose the procurement.”
Torgerson noted, however, that Vigil-Rendon didn’t “see anything illegal” in the procurement and “never felt retaliated against for raising her concerns.”