As deaths under ECTP rise, there's no prosecutor scrutiny of the program's deadly negligence

By LOUIS FLORES

Officials with the city’s Department of Investigation yesterday announced findings that the Emergency Communications Transformation Program, or ECTP, continues to cause problems with providing emergency medical services, calling the system “unduly complicated and unacceptably flawed.”  However, critics of ECTP say that the Department of Investigation should have gone further by saying flat-out that the expensive technology upgrade project has failed to anticipate or mitigate human errors.

The latest Department of Investigation report focused on the deaths of Ayina and Jai'Launi Tinglin, half-siblings who were each four years old.  The toddlers died in a fire in Far Rockaway, Queens, last April.

ECTP is six years behind schedule and almost $1 billion over budget, and it still doesn’t work, according to some statistics of problems with ECTP that were compiled by The New York Daily News.

With the Department of Investigation issuing new reports about ECTP that are limited in focus to the bungled responses that continue to lead to the deaths of people depending on the city’s 911 emergency call system, no prosecutor wants to investigate whether contract bidding or billing fraud or negligence in the design of ECTP has contributed to general conditions that have rendered the 911 emergency call system prone to on-going botched responses that are now turning deadly. 

Amongst the issues the Comptroller’s Office uncovered included the fact that Hewlett-Packard, the main contractor on the ECTP program, should not have qualified to work on ECTP as a result of failing to score the minimum level “required to be considered a viable contractor,” according to the 2012 audit report.

In 2012, former City Comptroller John Liu called for a criminal investigation by Manhattan prosecutors of the ECTP program after an audit conducted by his office of the ECTP program found bidding and billing irregularities.  Amongst the issues the Comptroller’s Office uncovered included the fact that Hewlett-Packard, the main contractor on the ECTP program, should not have qualified to work on ECTP as a result of failing to score the minimum level “required to be considered a viable contractor,” according to the 2012 audit report.  Furthermore, the report found that Hewlett-Packard had been “rated as a poor performer on another ECTP-related contract” with the New York Police Department, meaning the city “had no valid justification for selecting” Hewlett-Packard to work on the larger, more complex ECTP system. 

The Comptroller’s audit report cited concerns that Hewlett-Packard may have overcharged the city by as much as $163 million.  However, there’s been no indication that the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has begun any criminal investigation into possible contract bidding or billing fraud.  A request for comment to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office was not answered.

In the time since former Comptroller Liu requested a criminal review of ECTP, 4-year-old Ariel Russo and the siblings Tinglin have died in documented instances where the ECTP program failed.  The young Miss Russo died after she was struck by an SUV in the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  The city’s troubled ECTP program delayed emergency medical service response to all three youngsters.

From the Department of Investigation reports, there are indications that human errors may have contributed to the deaths of the three children.  An editorial by The New York Daily News called the failure of the ECTP program “inexcusable.”  

However, there’s been no more indication from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office that any criminal investigation into possible billing fraud, the latter concern which was raised by former Comptroller Liu’s audit.  A request for an interview sent to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office was not answered.

When former Comptroller Liu had requested a criminal review, his request appeared to focus on alleged bidding and billing fraud, but all of the details of the press release are difficult to confirm.  A 2012 press release issued by former Comptroller Liu about his office’s audit no longer appears on the Comptroller’s Web site.  Considering how deaths are now taking place that are traced back to the failed ECTP system in the face of continued silence from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, it’s not known if the negligent deaths of the three youngsters can also be legal factors to be considered by city officials in reviewing the botched ECTP system.

According to a high-level schematic of the ECTP program, emergency calls get routed to relevant police, fire, and emergency medical services, as needed.  However, the design of the program appears faulty, because the promise of a single computer-aided dispatch system has not been realized.  In the case of the siblings Tinglin, emergency medical services were not dispatched by the Intergraph Computer Aided Dispatch system, or ICAD, an implementation project of the NYPD.  Instead, responsibility for calling for both fire and emergency medical responses fell on an FDNY employee at an FDNY facility in Queens.  Due to human errors, which critics of the troubled ECTP system say the expensive upgrading project failed to take into account, firefighters arrived on the scene within five minutes of the first 911 call being made, but emergency medical services didn’t arrive until 21 minutes after the first 911 call was made.  The delay in the arrival of emergency medical services was due to a delay in ordering their dispatch. 

Eventually, the ECTP program envisions a central function that will dispatch calls for either NYPD, FDNY, or EMS at the same time. However, this system does not yet exist.  The current system, where an employee at an FDNY facility was responsible for dispatching both fire and emergency medical service responses. Source : New York City

Eventually, the ECTP program envisions a central function that will dispatch calls for either NYPD, FDNY, or EMS at the same time. However, this system does not yet exist.  The current system, where an employee at an FDNY facility was responsible for dispatching both fire and emergency medical service responses. Source : New York City

It is not known if the failure by ECTP contractors to anticipate or mitigate human errors, plus problems with the technical roll-out, should trigger criminal review for negligent results that include the deaths of people waiting for emergency medical services.  Hewlett-Packard, was unable to deliver on the promise of a central computer-aided dispatch system, which under the ECTP contract was referred to as a Unified Call Taking, or UCT, system.  This failure yielded to less-than-ideal conditions where FDNY call takers could presently be put in a situation where they would be in charge for dispatching both fire response and emergency medical service responses at the same time, as what should have happened, but unfortunately did not, in the case of the siblings Tinglin.  In the case of the siblings Tinglin, the FDNY dispatcher made a call for the fire response, but, under conditions influenced by human errors, failed to call for a timely emergency medical service response.  Eventually, contract changes to the ECTP system call for ICAD to replace the UCT system that Hewlett-Packard failed to deliver. 

The troubled ECTP program was suspended for a period of 60 days by Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris beginning last May after growing outrage following the deaths of the siblings Tinglin collided with the announcement of further delays and cost increases in the ECTP program.  Changes to the ECTP program were announced last August, including a preference for smaller projects within the larger ECTP goal, an apparent abandonment on ever achieving a rollout of a transformational system.  A message seeking current information about the ECTP program was not returned by Deputy Mayor Shorris’ office.

Critics of ECTP have questioned the role of lobbyists in perpetuating an expensive and failed technology contract.  The online journalist Gary Tilzer has repeatedly linked the role of powerful lobbyists in exerting political pressure on city officials to continue extending expensive and troubled technology contracts.

Influential lobbyists, such as George Arzt, have represented Hewlett-Packard on the ECTP contract.  Another influential lobbyist, Liz Holtzman, has represented Science Application International Corporation, or SAIC, on the troubled CityTime contract.  SAIC, now known as Leidos after a spin-off, was ultimately forced by federal prosecutors to refund New York City $500 million on the bungled CityTime project.  Both lobbyists are said to have considerable political influence over other elected officials ; Mr. Arzt also doubles as a campaign consultant, and Ms. Holtzman is a former member of Congress.  Government reform activists, including the political commentator and blogger Suzannah B. Troy, claim that the role of powerful lobbyists that work with other politicians or other wealthy clients serve as a detriment to investigating contracting fraud at troubled projects like the ECTP 911 emergency call system.  Since the Manhattan District Attorney is an elected office, government reform activists assert that prosecutors are possibly influenced by political considerations when it comes to investigating contracting fraud that involve powerful lobbyists, who may have interlocking relationships with other elected officials.  Given this web of interconnections, it’s as if some lobbyists have found a way to use the public office of the District Attorney to game the justice system, one political insider told Progress Queens on condition of anonymity, due to sensitivities to possible corruption by influential lobbyists.

Mr. Arzt’s was paid for representation of Hewlett-Packard in 2007 and 2008, around the time or immediately after the city’s Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications “recommended rebidding the main contract for system integration services with” Hewlett-Packard, a recommendation which “was not followed,” according to a 2014 report about ECTP issued by the city’s new Comptroller, Scott Stringer.  According to online city lobbying records, Mr. Arzt was paid by Hewlett-Packard to lobby former Deputy Mayor Ed Sklyer, the Bloomberg administration official who vocally defended the ECTP cost overruns.

At the MetroTech Center in Downtown Brooklyn, where call takers and dispatchers worked on 911 emergency calls.  This photographed was released by a New York City announcement at the reaching of an important milestone in ECTP : the sharing of the same space and same technology by NYPD, FDNY, and emergency medical services officials.  Notwithstanding, problems continue to exist with ECTP.  Source : Official Photograph/New York City

At the MetroTech Center in Downtown Brooklyn, where call takers and dispatchers worked on 911 emergency calls.  This photographed was released by a New York City announcement at the reaching of an important milestone in ECTP : the sharing of the same space and same technology by NYPD, FDNY, and emergency medical services officials.  Notwithstanding, problems continue to exist with ECTP.  Source : Official Photograph/New York City

Mr. Tilzer publishes a news Web site, True NewsTrue News has been asking that other elected officials, who have employed Mr. Arzt as a campaign consultant, should be confronted and asked why do such officials employ a political operative, who was paid to propagate Hewlett-Packard's expensive and arguably deadly contract work on ECTP.  Amongst government officials, who have employed Mr. Arzt to do campaign work, include Julie Menin.  Ms. Menin employed Mr. Arzt in her unsuccessful campaign last year for the office of Manhattan Borough President.  Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Ms. Menin last April as commissioner of the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs.

True News has published numerous other examples where lobbyists do questionable work, like on zone-busting real estate development projects or on controversial political campaigns, but prosecutors never investigate these politically influential lobbyists.  Without any way to police the conduct of lobbyists, potentially corrupt technology contracts keep getting extended, zone-busting real estate developments get approved, and controversial campaign work is done without fear of prosecutorial investigation.

If there are political considerations that may make it difficult for the Manhattan District Attorney's Office to investigate possible contracting fraud and negligent deaths tied to ECTP, it is not known if the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, given its continued silence, has considered the possibility of referring the investigation of ECTP to federal prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan.  The U.S. Attorney’s Office is led by Preet Bharara, who was appointed to his post by the Barack Obama, the President of the United States.  Although every presidential administration politicizes the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices to some extent, Mr. Bharara is less influenced by the interlocking network of lobbyists and campaign consultants, who can possibly exert influence over the Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus Vance, who must run for office with the help of campaign consultants and must answer to his campaign donors.

If prosecutors lack the will to defend public health by hesitating to describe ECTP as a dangerous and negligent program, that’s not stopping the surviving family members of some of the killed by ECTP from suing the city.  The young Miss Russo’s family has sued New York City, and one of the reasons stated was that the 911 emergency call system was broken, faulting the city for “implementing a new 911 system without adequate and proper testing.”  Critics of ECTP ask why couldn’t contractors, who designed the new system, anticipate the problems that have resulted, asserting that that is what a major, $2 billion technology upgrade should have foreseen.

A report about ECTP issued by the city’s new Comptroller, Scott Stringer, was timed to precede changes announced by the mayor’s office after the 60-day suspension period.  Missing at the time of the release of Mr. Stringer’s report was any contemporaneous call for a criminal investigation, as was made by his predecessor.

One of ECTP critics is Ms. Troy, the political commentator and blogger.  Ms. Troy rightly predicted that the city's 911 system would become overwhelmed during Hurricane Sandy.  When asked about the walk-back by Comptroller Stringer from his predecessor’s call for a criminal investigation, Ms. Troy said of Comptroller Stringer, “He’s protecting the Bloomberg legacy, as well the contractors, consultants, and lobbyists involved,” adding, “and that’s why he removed the press release in January when he came into office this year.  I exclusively reported on my blog that he removed the press release.  The good news is that John Liu’s audit is still there, but the press release calling for a criminal investigation is gone.”

Ms. Troy said that there are other actions by contractors working on the ECTP, which require legal scrutiny.

“One of the three ECTP contractors was exposed by The New York Daily News as giving former NYPD Chief Chuck Dowd and other senior NYPD officials gifts, and I question whether HP did the same.”

The day after Comptroller Stringer issued his softer report, the Department of Investigation issued still yet another report about ECTP, this time claiming that all of the problems with the city’s troubled 911 emergency call system was due to “significant mismanagement.”

“When you have rich friends, it’s not called stealing.  It’s called gross mismanagement,” Ms. Troy said about the Department of Investigation’s latest report.