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More fraud questions raised for probation

O’Brien’s bidding process ‘flawed’ on ankle bracelets

John J. O’Brien made the final vendor selection. John J. O’Brien made the final vendor selection. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Andrea Estes and Scott Allen
Globe Staff / June 8, 2011

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Former probation commissioner John J. O’Brien followed a “deeply flawed’’ process to award a multimillion dollar contract for electronic monitoring services, raising suspicion that O’Brien’s choice was based on “favoritism, fraud, or improper influence,’’ according to the state inspector general.

O’Brien, who resigned last New Year’s Eve amid charges he had overseen rampant favoritism and fraud in hiring hundreds of probation employees from 1998 to 2010, now faces similar questions in the selection of iSECUREtrac to provide ankle bracelets worn by nearly 1,000 criminals and suspects awaiting trial.

Inspector General Gregory W. Sullivan said crucial bid documents in 2008 were filled out in pencil and appear to have been changed, and he found a near-total lack of documentation that iSECUREtrac was the best choice to provide the technology.

Sullivan could not determine why iSECUREtrac won the $2 million-a-year contract, saying that O’Brien and five key employees in the bidding process refused to answer his questions. A Globe review of the bidding process found there were at least three other companies that made lower bids.

“It is impossible to have any confidence that this contract was awarded on the merits,’’ Sullivan wrote yesterday in a five-page letter to acting Probation Commissioner Ronald P. Corbett. “In fact, the [Probation Department’s] deviation from customary bidding practices makes it impossible to be sure there was no favoritism, fraud, or improper influence in the awarding of this contract.’’

In a written statement, Corbett said yesterday that he “will be reviewing the report and taking appropriate action, as needed.’’

O’Brien’s lawyer did not return calls from the Globe.

The electronic monitoring program was one of the most controversial initiatives of O’Brien’s 12-year tenure at the Probation Department, a statewide surveillance system that employed more people to monitor criminals wearing ankle bracelets than any other state, according to a 2010 Globe Spotlight Team survey of all 50 states.

Many employees in the monitoring department are political allies of O’Brien, including the wife of state Representative Thomas M. Petrolati, Democrat of Ludlow, who wielded enormous influence over hiring decisions in Western Massachusetts, and the nephew of the judge who appointed O’Brien as commissioner. Both Kathleen Petrolati and Eugene Irwin declined to answer Sullivan’s questions.

Despite ample staffing, the program failed to stop a convicted rapist from kidnapping and raping a Framingham woman for hours after he tore his bracelet off. William D. French was captured only when his victim managed to escape and call for help.

A spokeswoman said yesterday that the number of employees in the program has dropped from 59 to 33 since the Spotlight article on the program in 2010 and that one of three electronic monitoring centers, located in Boston, has been closed.

The Globe found that the bid by iSECUREtrac was the fourth lowest of the seven bids, charging $7.95 a day for each bracelet. Sullivan said he did not write about the pricing because there were so many significant problems with the way the bids were evaluated, even before cost was taken into account.

For instance, the nine probation employees who evaluated the proposals did not even know the prices proposed by the various bidders. Only O’Brien, who made the final vendor selection, and his top aides knew the dollar amounts proposed by the seven companies, Sullivan said.

Eight of nine evaluators rated iSECUREtrac highest on technical grounds, but Sullivan found the rankings suspect.

The written scoring appeared to have been done before the devices were tested, according to the report. The score sheets were completed in pencil and showed signs of changes and erasures, Sullivan wrote.

In fact, iSECUREtrac’s equipment did not meet the department’s basic requirements. The bracelets were supposed to be equipped with two-way radios allowing probation employees to talk to the people wearing them. Sullivan found that evaluators ignored the fact iSECUREtrac’s device only allows the Probation Department to send a text message to the offender.

Members of the evaluation team could not explain why they chose iSECUREtrac, Sullivan wrote, and seemed unfamiliar with the Probation Department’s equipment needs.

Last summer, O’Brien aides would not say exactly why they chose iSECUREtrac, telling the Globe that the devices performed best during testing.

“Each company set up their equipment in Massachusetts for several weeks,’’ wrote officials. “This allowed the evaluation team an opportunity to identify any flaws or weaknesses.’’

But iSECUREtrac’s ankle bracelets have not functioned as promised, Sullivan said.

“This is a multimillion contract awarded based on a shoddy procurement,’’ he said. “It resulted in the state getting a product that didn’t meet the requirements and has been plagued with performance problems. “

The iSECUREtrac devices trigger frequent false alarms, he said, and sometimes fail to send out signals even when they are fully charged and properly worn.

Some probationers told the Spotlight Team last year that they landed in jail after the device malfunctioned.

“I was lying in bed watching TV when the police started banging on my door,’’ said a man who was put on electronic monitoring while awaiting trial on attempted murder and assault and battery charges. “They said, ‘We have to arrest you.’ The GPS was plugged in, and the thing was around my ankle.’’

At the time iSECUREtrac landed the contract, the company was losing money. “We have incurred significant losses and expect losses to continue,’’ officials wrote in the company’s 2008 annual report. That year, the company reported an accumulated deficit of $75 million.

The Massachusetts contract, which was extended in August 2009 with a new lower price of $5.95 per bracelet a day, will expire next January. The department has begun to put the contract out to bid.

Officials of iSECUREtrac did not return calls for comment.

Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com; Scott Allen at allen@globe.com.