West Virginia spent $512,000 in federal stimulus funds last year to pay a consultant who's helping to manage the state's high-speed Internet expansion project while living in Colorado.
The state is on pace to spend another $329,000 for the consultant's services this year.
The state didn't start paying the Denver-based consultant, Perry Rios, through a contract with Verizon until February 2011, even though the state Office of Technology approved Rios' contract in July 2010. He began work on the statewide broadband project two months later.
The state has paid $196 an hour for Rios' services, or $731,770 through the end of last month.
Rios isn't the only high-dollar consultant hired through Verizon.
The state has used stimulus funds to pay Verizon $252,075 for network engineer Lloyd Draper, who lives in Glen Allen, Va., and $143,490 for Clarence Tuning, a Hartford, Conn., network engineer who also works for a Louisville, Ky.-based technology firm. Draper and Tuning have $150-an-hour contracts.
Two additional project managers, Lance Host and Rusty Risher, who both live in West Virginia, have been paid $99,661 and $97,500 respectively. Verizon charges $250 an hour for their services as "project managers."
Host and Risher are Verizon employees, while the three others are independent consultants hired through Verizon.
All told, the state has paid Verizon $1.3 million for the consultants, who were hired under an existing 2007 statewide contract designed for a different type of consulting work that's not part of West Virginia's broadband expansion project. State officials had used the contract only once - in 2008 - before tapping it to pay for the five consultants.
State officials said last week that the Office of Technology and other state agencies needed extra help because of the massive size of the $126.3 million project.
"This work goes far beyond our current staffing resources," said Gale Given, chief technology officer for West Virginia state government. "These professionals are necessary to provide engineering, project management and other functions, and to coordinate the various parties that are involved in the grant."
Consultant traveled to W.Va. from Colorado 47 times
The state is using the $126.3 million federal stimulus grant to purchase Internet routers and bring fiber-optic cable to more than 1,000 "community anchor institutions" - schools, libraries, 911 centers, state agencies, State Police barracks, health centers, and other public facilities. The money, which was awarded in 2010, also will pay to upgrade an existing wireless Internet tower network.
The U.S. Department of Commerce's inspector general and West Virginia legislative auditor are reviewing the state's use of the stimulus funds.
Rios has traveled from his Colorado home to West Virginia 47 times since being hired in the summer of 2010, state officials said. Rios manages the state's "master project plan," which includes 100,000 tasks, Given said.
He attends monthly meetings with the state's "Tiger Team," a group charged with ensuring the public facilities receive routers and fiber-optic Internet connections.
Rios also takes part in weekly conference calls with the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, the federal agency that distributed the stimulus funds. And he compiles weekly "status reports" for state Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato, who's administering the grant for West Virginia.
Gianato would not say last week how many times he's met with Rios.
State Broadband Deployment Council Chairman Dan O'Hanlon said he has met Rios twice since the expansion project started.
Rios has a West Virginia state government email and voicemail account. He did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment last week.
State officials said Verizon bills the state for Rios' time traveling from Colorado to West Virginia, but the state doesn't pick up Rios' expenses - flights, meals and hotel stays.
"The rates charged to the state of West Virginia are for labor only," said Kevin Irland, a Verizon spokesman. "Neither Verizon nor any subcontractors charge the state for travel-related expenses."
Multiple project managers
Rios isn't the only one to stake a claim as project manager on the broadband expansion.
Frontier Communications engineer Mark Mackenzie lists his current job title as "lead project manager" for the $126.3 million project, according to his online resume at LinkedIn. Frontier is building the fiber network.
An Office of Technology administrator, Nick Patel, also holds the title of "project manager" on the state's broadband project, according to Patel's LinkedIn profile.
Patel's job duties seem to mirror those spelled out in Rios' contract.
"Currently working as project manager for the state of West Virginia that was awarded stimulus funding," Patel wrote. "As a project manager, I was accountable for managing teams of vendors throughout the state coordinating project estimates, approvals, budgets and resources to ensure projects are on time and within budget."
Patel goes on: "As project manager for this large fiber deployment project and router deployment, I am also responsible for router deployment and distribution."
Rios' job title differs on various documents.
An organizational chart lists Rios as "grant engineering project manager." His contract describes him as "senior professional services project manager," and Verizon invoices list his title simply as "project manager."
Asked to describe Rios' role, Given said, "Perry Rios is a project planner for the state's fiber and router deployment portion of the grant."
Consultant contract pays up to $250 an hour
In 2007, the state signed a contract with Verizon Business to upgrade the state's Internet network that served state agencies. The following year, the state technology office used the contract to pay Verizon $230,000 to design the network.
The contract wasn't tapped again until July 2010, after the state received the $126.3 million federal stimulus grant.
The state has used the contract mostly for broadband project expenses since then - with the bulk of payments, $5.7 million, going to Frontier to build the fiber network to public facilities. The state Treasurer's Office, Division of Motor Vehicles and Lottery Commission also have paid Verizon for services under the contract during the past year.
The state used the same contract to pay the consultants hired through Verizon.
The 2007 contract allows the state to pay Verizon personnel up to $250 an hour for "IP telephony professional services." Internet protocol telephony uses the Internet to exchange voice, fax and other forms of communication traditionally carried over phone lines.
Rios and the four other Verizon consultants working on the West Virginia broadband project aren't doing any work on such a communication system, and their contracts mention nothing about Internet protocol telephony.
Verizon used an outside consulting firm that recommended candidates for the broadband consulting jobs, while Office of Technology staff members interviewed and selected the consultants.
"West Virginia asked Verizon to recommend a slate of technical experts," Irland said. "The company did so, presenting a list of both internal and external candidates to the state for final selection."
Rios and the other consultants hired through Verizon haven't spoken or delivered reports at any public meetings, such as the monthly Broadband Deployment Council meeting. The Gazette obtained the consultants' invoices - and totaled them - after filing a Freedom of Information Act request.
Rios' 2010 contract limited total charges to $564,000. His latest contract has a $407,000 limit. Rios has not exceeded those caps.
"Projects such as the state of West Virginia's broadband expansion project require technical experts with specialized [skill] sets to help ensure successful implementation," Irland said. "In the case of the state's broadband project, specific project management and engineering skill sets were needed to meet program requirements."
West Virginia's broadband project budget, which was submitted to the federal government, doesn't mention the hiring of "project managers." But the budget sets aside $900,000 for "high-level engineering ... likely via contract."
State officials said the $1.3 million spent on the Verizon consultants wouldn't hamper the broadband expansion project. The state expects to finish the $126.3 project with $9 million in leftover funds. The state has until Jan. 31 to spend the stimulus money, or risk having to return unspent funds to the federal government.
"The total engineering amount has not been exceeded," Given said. "The $900,000 reflects a single budget line item. However, there remains sufficient budget funding [for] the oversight consultant, engineering and fiber engineering that will appropriately absorb all engineering costs associated with the project."
Reach Eric Eyre
| (Search Help)