Michael John Gray, chair of the Arkansas Democratic Party, will have a news conference this morning to talk about the need for a bipartisan investigation of state handling of coronavirus assistance programs.
On the agenda are the insecure website built for the as-yet-nonoperational Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits program for self-employed and the favoritism extended by Commerce Secretary Mike Preston in providing advance knowledge of the Ready for Business grant program to select people.
The Arkansas Times reported the problem with the PUA website, so poorly secured that personal financial information was readily accessible. The Times notified state Workforce Services, which took the website down Friday evening. Democrats also note the program isn’t functioning despite checks already going out in three dozen other states.
An independent contractor was hired to build the website, supposedly for its ability to work faster and with expertise the state lacks. A legislator told me over the weekend that his records indicated Protech, the vendor, has a $2.1 million contract for this work.
We documented through materials obtained under the Freedom of Information Act that Preston gave notice to state “partners” five hours before the Ready for Business program was announced by the governor at 1:41 p.m. April 29. Also before that announcement, a governor’s staff member and a lobbyist for the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce spread the word of the coming announcement to others, including business lobbyists. Within seconds of the governor’s speaking words about the grant program at a news conference, Preston’s AEDC distributed full details of the program to its “partners.’ They were further briefed at 3 p.m. When the website went online at 5 p.m., a day earlier than anticipated and without notice to or authorization by the legislature, the $15 million available in what was described as a first-come-first-served program was oversubscribed in minutes and the website shut down before 6 p.m. At that point, thousands of people in Arkansas didn’t know it existed.
A legislative outcry led to an expansion of the program to $147 million, enough to cover everyone who has applied, if they are found to meet criteria. That money has not been distributed yet.
Since then, Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said the subject of a heads-up for insiders has been “beaten to death” and Preston has insisted no information “leaked.” It might be true that no one had access to the website before 5 p.m., though Rep. Robin Lundstrum expressed skepticism at a Legislative Council meeting last week, noting the first completed application was filed at 5:04 p.m. But it’s undeniable that many insiders had advance knowledge that enabled them to be ready to pounce on the money before others knew about it.
Normally, a call for action by the Democratic Party is routinely ignored by the Republican-dominated legislature. This time might be different. Mike Preston got raked over the coals Friday by the Legislative Council over handling of the Ready for Business grant program and most of the questions came from Republicans.
The Legislative Council also was assured Friday by his underling, Workforce Services Director Charisse Childers, that the website was up and running and PUA checks should be going out this week. That was before the Times broke the news of the security flaw and the website was taken down for repair and a forensic review of whether financial information of 30,000 applicants had been compromised.
The governor will meet reporters in some fashion today at a 1:30 p.m. coronavirus update. He will be in Forrest City, where it appears a mass outbreak in a federal prison has spread into the community.
Maybe some reporters will pick up today on threads overlooked in weekend coverage of the website disaster.