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Computer firm claims Hillsborough changed rules to aid vendor

TAMPA — A computer installation company says Hillsborough County changed its rules to reject the company’s bid to provide services, costing taxpayers more than a quarter-million dollars.

Michael Banks, president of Form 10 Group Inc., said a number of deliberate actions by the county eliminated his company from the competition to install and replace computers in county offices. That cleared the way, Banks said, for another company whose bid was $277,500 higher over five years.

“It was guided to one vendor,” Banks charged.

In one of those actions, he said, the county withdrew its second request for bids just hours before the 2 p.m. deadline on Oct. 11.

An earlier request for bids had drawn only one bidder because, county officials felt, it was a set-aside for small and minority businesses.

The county extended the Oct. 11 bid deadline until Oct. 25 and amended the request with a new requirement: bidders must be authorized to re-sell Hewlett Packard computers.

Form 10 was not an HP re-seller; the winning company, accomtec, was.

County officials declined comment because county commissioners are set to vote on the contract Wednesday.

But in a detailed response to a bid protest from Form 10, the county reiterated that Banks’ company was rejected because it is not a Hewlett Packard re-seller. What’s more, the county noted Form 10’s bid fell short of a requirement in the original bid request — that the winning company hold certification as a Hewlett Packard ONE Specialist Provider. This certification, according to the county, is more demanding than the re-seller certification, thus limiting the pool of potential bidders.

In a Nov. 18 email, Hillsborough Information Technology manager Axel Clauberg said the county had “lowered the requirement” from HP One Specialist to authorized re-seller in order to attract more bidders.

In other words, the county was lowering the bar because only two bids had been received on the second go-around: one from Form 10 and one from a south Florida company called A Plus Computers Services.

Banks said he could find no reference on the Hewlett Packard website to a Hewlett Packard ONE Specialist Provider.

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According to a Hewlett Packard spokesman and the company website, the actual certification is through the HP PartnerOne Program. The “specialist” designation is meaningless, the spokesman said, unless accompanied by a description of the specialty.

Banks also maintains that the county’s requirement that vendors be HP re-sellers is unnecessary. He said his company has installed and replaced thousands of HP computers for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and for the Hillsborough County Tax Collector.

Banks brushed off Clauberg’s reasoning that HP re-sellers have “access to technical HP support and HP system engineers that can address and troubleshoot technical issues ...”

“There is no technical support called for under this contract,” Banks said. “It’s an over-specification to eliminate vendors.”

Banks provided this account of irregularities he sees in the bidding process:

Accomtec has the current contract to install computers with the county but for some reason did not bid to retain the contract in the opening or second round.

On Oct. 15, four days after the second bid deadline was withdrawn, accomtec downloaded the bid document and showed up for the first time as a vendor on DemandStar, a website for government procurement.

That same day, county IT manager Clauberg, emailed Patrick Leary, the president of accomtec. The message was short: “As per our discussion, do you have time on Friday to talk and catch up on our contracts?”

When the bids were opened Oct. 25, accomtec was high at $149,000 per year with Form 10 second at $93,900 per year. A Plus Computer Services out of Opa-Locka was low at $63,950, but was rejected because it didn’t have a local office.

Banks argues that the communication between Clauberg and Leary was improper and that the first round of bids was delayed so accomtec could get a look at the names of companies that had already submitted bids before the deadline was extended.

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It would be easy, Banks said, for Leary to check whether Form 10 was a Hewlett Packard re-seller and whether A Plus had an office nearby. When accomtec saw the other two companies would be rejected, the company could afford to bid a higher amount, Banks said.

“If somebody told me we only had two (other) bids on this, what the third party is going to do is jack up the price,” Banks said.

What’s more, Banks said, the county budgeted the project at $60,000 per year — a figure he calls “impossibly low.”

“I honestly think that was done to scare off other companies from bidding,” he said.

Leary, the president of accomtec, said he did not bid on the contract in the beginning because his wife was seriously ill and he was spending his time running between several hospitals.

“Quite frankly, I had so much stuff going on during the summer, I didn’t even catch that the bid had come out,” Leary said. “I missed it.”

As for Clauberg’s email. Leary characterized it as a normal communication between client and contractor. In addition to installing new computers, accomtec also has the contract to repair existing computers in county offices.

“Axel and I met quarterly to discuss those contracts as part of regular contract maintenance over the last five years,” Leary said in an email. “In this case, I had called and asked him to check his schedule for a potential meeting time. Axel was responding with that availability.”

Accomtec also advises the county on its purchases from Hewlett Packard. As a HP re-seller, accomtec has the knowledge and the contacts with the computer giant to get exactly the kind of hardware and configurations the county needs, Leary said.

“We know the contracts, we know all the changes that are coming and, in a lot of cases, we save (the county) money,” Leary said. “We are the contract experts assisting them with their purchases.”

After Form 10 lost its bid protest, it still had the option to appeal to an independent hearing master. But Banks decided not to exercise that option before the protest period ended Thursday.

“The legal costs,” he said in an email, “far outweigh our chances for any positive outcome on the contract.”

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