Here’s more on a story of how money gets passed around in Arkansas, from the officials who get to grant the blessings, to the lucky ones who know where the opportunities will be and make sure to position themselves in the right place at the right time.
Stories like these always seem complicated at first, which is the trick, right? Keep it messy and no one will dedicate the time and effort to follow along.
But this particular chapter of shadiness and shamelessness is more straightforward than most. A company with the least to offer won a fat contract to perform a statewide study of broadband needs. This company, which analysts deemed monumentally inferior to its competitors, but who has friends in high places, asked for, and was awarded, exponentially more money. A gaudy graphic circulating on social media really does manage to sum it all up.
You won’t be shocked to hear that the payroll of this company, Broadband Development Group, includes a son of state legislator Ken Bragg of Sheridan and the wife of Congressman French Hill. Hill voted against the American Rescue Plan that’s providing the lion’s share of funds for this project, calling the $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package a “blue state bailout” of “fluffy giveaways.” Now, some of that fluff is conceivably headed Hill’s way in the form of a paycheck to his wife, a registered lobbyist for the Broadband Development Group.
The ick factor here is not hard to grasp. Analysts determined that the Broadband Development Group of Little Rock ranked lowest as far as experience and ability to deliver on what the state was looking for. And Broadband Development Group’s price tag was FIVE TIMES higher than the other two companies competing to do the work (Deloitte Consulting of Texas said they could do the work for $489,273, and Costquest Associates of Ohio bid $533,600). To be fair, Broadband Development Group did eventually come down a bit, from $2.75 million to $2.24 million for a one-year contract.
Price tag aside, of the three companies vying for the contract, Broadband Development Group scored at the bottom, and it wasn’t even close. State-employee information technologists who analyzed the proposals gave Broadband Development Group a score of 461.3. Deloitte scored 801.7, and Costquest scored 881.7.
The legislators and state officials who pushed to hire Broadband Development Group anyway offer only aw shucks, folksy kinds of reasons for shelling out $2 million extra for the proposal that ranked lowest: They’re based in Arkansas, or they take a “boots on the ground approach,” or they seemed really nice when they went on a state legislator’s conservative religious radio show.
There was some minor back and forth in the two months between when the request for proposals went out and the contract was awarded. Anyone with a nose knew something was fishy, and a few people were willing to state the obvious. Arkansas Commerce Secretary Mike Preston rightly raised some flags about Broadband Development Group’s exorbitant price tag. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Wickline inspected emails from Preston to state lawmakers and found that Preston urged them to give a fair look at the Ohio-based Costquest, which had a good track record of working in Arkansas and was willing to do the job for a fraction of the cost. And Steven Porch, broadband manager for the Arkansas Department of Commerce, even told lawmakers they should scrap it all and start over with a brand new request for proposals because Broadband Development Group simply didn’t have enough experience to pull it off.
But Arkansas Parks, Heritage and Tourism Director Stacy Hurst, who was inexplicably in charge of the bidding process for this technology-based project that has no apparent connection to parks or heritage or tourism, squashed the multiple and valid criticisms. What’s a five-fold markup that will cost an extra $2 million for an inferior product among friends? Especially when it’s gullible and distracted taxpayers who will be footing the bill?
Even those voters clutching economic anxiety to their chests as an excuse to vote for white power Republican culture warriors might want to give this debacle a closer look. It’s the work of Republicans, start to finish. It appears fiscal conservatism isn’t a priority when your friends and family are the ones cashing in.