By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—Acting Finance Director Bill Newton warned department heads to inform State personnel not to speak to the media, and report any contact to him immediately, or else.
On Thursday afternoon, Dec. 8, alreporter.com published an investigative report chronicling the failing implementation of the accounting software known as STAARS—the story was later updated on Dec. 9. Newton issues a directive concerning contact with the media on Dec. 10.
In his directive, Newton issues a not-so-subtle threat to all employees stating, “Every media inquiry shall immediately be made known to the Finance Director. Any employee of the Department not authorized to communicate with the media shall refer any inquiry from the media to the Director. No employee of the Department of Finance shall initiate contact with the media or issue any communication that could reach the media concerning the operations, personnel, policies and activities of the Department of Finance or state government, unless the Director has given specific authority for such communication. Any inquiry not from the media that seeks information regarding the Department, shall be referred to the Legal Division to determine if the inquiry can be processed as a ‘Request To View Public Records’ or should be referred to the Director.”
He concludes with, “A violation of this policy shall immediately be reported to the Director.”
This publication contacted the Department of Finance on Dec. 7, regarding Open Alabama which had not updated it financial data since Oct. 2015. Finance referred us to Gov. Robert Bentley’s communications office. On Dec 8, the office forwarded the following answer, “Open Alabama has not been updated since September 30, due to a software update. 2016 data will be added as soon as it is available.”
Governor Bentley’s press release on Dec. 18 states, “Open Alabama had been inoperable since October during the update implementation process.”
Inoperable or updated?
Again on Dec. 8, before publishing the story, we reached out for more information asking the following questions:
Question: Why was CGI awarded a no-bid contract for finance and accounting software?
Answer: This project is an upgrade of the software that the State purchased from CGI and installed years ago. Other upgrades have been undertaken in earlier years, and this current project is the latest of upgrades to the system.
Question: You say it is an “implementation issue.” Several State agencies say it has hastily implemented and has been a disaster. With thousands of payments in arrears, how can this be called simply a “back log?”
Answer: Payments are being processed and paid daily.
Question: This problem has been on going for around three months. Has Gov. Bentley been aware of the “implementation” problems?
Question: What actions has he taken?
Answer: The Governor has assigned additional State employees to assist with the implementation of this upgrade.
The day before these answers were provided by the Governor’s Communication Office, State Comptroller Tom White sent an email which painted a very different picture. The subject line reads: “IMPORTANT INFORMATION: FY 16 Emergency Declarations for Services Normally Paid on PO.” The body says, “Please forward this information to your agency head and all staff as needed. A number of agencies have not been able to set up FY 16 purchase orders (PO’s). This delays processing payment transactions for FY 16 services.
“Agencies can declare a Title 41-16-23 emergency for each specific type of service in order to process FY 16 payments, until the purchase orders are issued. Title 41-16-23 declared emergencies are specific, not general or blanket declarations. A purchase order is considered a contract purchase order. All emergency declarations must meet minimum requirements specified in Finance Fiscal Policy & Procedures Manual, Chapter 4, page 4-4.
When GAX payment is processed, attach invoice(s) and the specific emergency declaration as the legal authority for payment.”
So, the day before our questions were addressed in a very positive manner, the State was issuing paper warrants of payment for its debts.
These answers coming from Finance ring hollow in light of the State employees who have come forward at great risk to expose government failure.
Newton concludes his media contact directive stating, “Each Division Chief is to inform their staff of this Directive, and provide copies as necessary…Each Division Chief is directed to sign and return the following acknowledgment via email to [email protected].”
This and the latest statements coming from the Governor’s Office contradict the promise of transparency made by this administration.
Former intimates of Gov. Bentley say he is very loyal, however, Newton, it would seem, is not being anymore forthcoming with the administration than he is with the press.