House budget writers hammer Va. computer agency

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Members of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee demanded better cost information and more candor from Virginia’s troubled computer superagency.

Senior members of the panel on Monday voiced outrage at cost overruns, service outages and delays that have paralyzed state agencies, failures that have prompted a scathing review by the General Assembly’s watchdog agency.

The 10-year, $2.4 billion partnership between the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, created in 2003, and defense and government contracting giant Northrop Grumman Corp. is the largest state contract ever with a single vendor.

On Monday, senior Republicans and Democrats vented frustrations at VITA’s primary overseer, state chief information officer George Coulter, when he appeared before them.

“The problem is, Mr. Coulter, a lot of us on this committee feel no one’s taken responsibility for this debacle, either Northrop Grumman or VITA, and the problem is in the business world someone has to take responsibility,” said Del. Steven Landes, R-Augusta County.

“Your credibility and the agency’s credibility and, to be honest, with some of us the company’s credibility is minimal to say the least,” Landes said. “You started out your comments like everything was rosy. It’s not rosy!”

Coulter stood before the panel shortly after it heard a briefing on the critical report the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission finished and presented last month. Its findings outlined how Northrop Grumman had missed several key deadlines for upgrading and standardizing the far-flung network of computers and online systems each state agency once maintained independently.

He noted that the report also noted that overall, the state’s information technology system is far superior to what it would have been by now had the VITA-Northrop Grumman partnership not formed in 2005.

“While the transformation process is difficult, I firmly believe the commonwealth benefits greatly (from) improved our information security, having a standard infrastructure in place, and correcting deficiencies across the board,” Coulter said.

Northrop Grumman had no representative before the panel. The company had no comment, said one of its lobbyists, Julie Rautio.

But senior members of the panel, which is responsible for appropriating money for the partnership, made it clear that they were not happy with how VITA was managing its corporate alliance.

“The biggest bill of goods we were sold back in 2003 was all these cost savings, unrealistic expectations of what was going to occur. From this committee’s standpoint, we need real-time information, we need honesty, and we also need to know exactly what we’re getting,” said Del. M. Kirkland Cox of Colonial Heights, the committee’s ranking Republican.

Del. S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, grilled Coulter on whether VITA would demand to renegotiate its performance bond with Northrop Grumman to have clearer and more specific targets.

“We had an expectation that it was going to get better, but having a relative who worked under the old and went to the new, I knew from the beginning it would be a disaster,” Jones said.

VITA also had defenders on the panel. Del. Clarence Phillips, D-Dickenson County, said he was opposed to filing lawsuits that could result in the dismantling of the Northrop Grumman contract.

“In my opinion, if we file suit (for) breach of contract, theoretically the whole IT system could have collapsed,” Phillips said. “It wouldn’t have been a computer off line a few days and then put it back on.”