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Pallets of Phones Gather Dust Under Newton’s Orders

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—Pallets stacked with expensive Cisco phones, perhaps representing millions in State tax dollars, sit silently gathering dust in a warehouse, because someone at the State Department of Finance thinks they have a better idea.

After reporting on the botched rollout of the STAARS accounting system, more than two-dozen confidential sources have reached out to alerting us to myriad problems inside the Finance Department. An open record request has been made to the department, now over a month old, as its legal counsel tries to stall for time.

bill-newtonFor over a year, these phones have been in storage because Acting Finance Director, Bill Newton’s assistant director, Rex McDowell, countered the wishes of the agencies who had requested the systems’ purchase. The Office of the Attorney General, Medicaid, and State Personnel all order Cisco systems phones for VoIP.

The State Department of Health had installed the system and found it saved around $500,000 annually. The plan excused by Cisco can be seen here.

Many of the systems were scheduled to be installed before McDowell suddenly pulled the plug, according to employees in the various agencies.

Reportedly, McDowell, who owns a phone/communications company in Texas, with Newton’s approval, made the call, and later said the new Cisco phones would be sold on the used phone market.

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There is wide speculation that Newton and McDowell want to use the Huntsville-based, Digium, to replace the Cisco systems phones. Digium is the brainchild of Mark Spencer, who according to his bio, “revolutionized digital telephony in 1999, when he created Asterisk.” Asterisk was folded into Digium. Spencer was born in Auburn and educated at Auburn University. His parents have served as professors at the university.

Emails to departments have not been returned.

Newton reportedly has doubled-down on his threats to those who speak with the media. The cover-up surrounding STAARS continues, as the cash reconciliation portion of the program is still not working, leaving agencies with hundreds of thousand of dollars in payments that can’t be processed. Interagency payments are coming in without identification, so posting the payment becomes impossible, leaving millions unaccounted for in a virtual software limbo.

At a recent budget hearing, Acting Finance Director, Bill Newton, conceded blame for STAARS’ failed implementation, but then quickly turned it around, finding fault with State IT workers who were forced to pair off-the-shelf program provided by CGI with the State’s desperate systems. Those close to the implementation, described the process of “putting our square peg in their round hole,” the system continues to fail despite Newton’s testimony before the joint-budget committee.

Newton continues to embarrass Gov. Bentley’s administration with the steady drip, drip, drip, that is exposing his management of the Department of Finance.

Newton is trying to keep a tight lid on the situation by hiding these failures from Gov. Bentley. In State agencies, people are afraid for their jobs, feeling bullied by Newton and his staff. But the number of State workers who have contacted can be assured, we will not violate your confidentiality.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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