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Apr 29 - May 07, 2014

Consultants Want More for Botched Helwig Telecommunications Fiasco

By Mike Hudson & Frank Parlato

April 29, 2014

Larry Helwig did it his way

Niagara County legislators will be asked tonight to vote to pay additional money to two consultants responsible for the failed telephone system design that the county government decided not to move forward with. A pair of resolutions to spend $12,000 in additional costs ask lawmakers to award Cannon Design of Grand Island and ECC Technologies of Penfield, money for attending three legislative meetings earlier this year and being present for a couple of interviews, in addition to the $144,500 already paid to the consultants. At the heart of what is now a hopelessly botched job is Niagara County Director of Information Technology and Wheatfield Town Councilman Larry L. Helwig. Helwig's position as the county's IT director pays him $93,000 a year.

The plan to install a new phone system in county buildings was canceled by the legislature under threat of lawsuits by two of the bidders. Tonight, the same consultants who helped create the problem will go before lawmakers and argue for another $12,000 in consulting fees for the phone system that never materialized. In March, the Republican-controlled legislature drafted a resolution to admonish Helwig for the failed deal that some are calling "bid rigging." According to documents in the possession of the Niagara Falls Reporter, Helwig and his consultants clearly changed the bids of the two lowest bidders, Advance 2000 and IP Logic, in an apparent attempt to get the legislature to award the contract to IP Logic.

According to the resolution, "The poor performance demonstrated by (Helwig)...has impeded and complicated what should have been a clearly defined process." Things became confused from the start. Last summer, a request for bids went out for a consultant to study if the county needed a new phone system. ECC Technology bid $70,000 and Canon Design bid $74,500. The Republican majority in the legislature selected Canon. Democratic minority leader Dennis Virtuoso complained that Republicans selected Cannon, who bid $4,500 higher than ECC, because Cannon gave Republicans campaign money. WGRZ News reported that, since 2007, Cannon Design had contributed $4,200 to the Niagara County Republican Committee, nearly the amount by which their bid exceeded that of ECC.

So what did the county do to rectify this apparent indiscretion? They hired both consultants, essentially doubling the cost of consulting from $70,000 to $144,500. Once hired, the consultants and Helwig determined that a new phone system was needed in more than 30 buildings used by the county, even though a number of these buildings may be phased out or closed in the future. The design called for individual phone and computer "drops" for 1,900 people, while the county employs only 1,450 people. Furthermore, not all employees need a dedicated phone and a computer with internet service, e.g., janitors, truck drivers, parks workers, etc. What was Helwig thinking?

Cisco routers caused strife.
Nevertheless, the request for bids prepared by Helwig and his double-duty consultants sent this over-designed project out for bidding. Advance 2000 of Amherst submitted the low bid of $605,184. The second lowest bidder was IP Logic at $673,641. But Helwig, aided by his consultants, inverted the two lowest bids by adding and subtracting costs, thus artificially inflating the bids to $761,773 for IP Logic and to $816,862 for Advance 2000. In January, Carl Carbone, business development executive for Advance 2000, a reseller of Alcatel-Lucent equipment, alleged that Helwig falsified bid documents to favor IP Logic, who resold Cisco Systems equipment.

Carbone charged that bid documents were written to favor vendors of Cisco Systems technology. Indeed, the fight was over Helwig's insistence on using Cisco products. In fact, the RFP used Cisco part numbers and said the county wanted those parts "or equivalents." Helwig later explained, "Cisco is the standard. They write the standards." Both companies threatened lawsuits if the other one was selected. In any event, the upshot was that the bids were to expire April 10 which was exactly what the legislature waited for. No action was taken. The bids expired and became invalid.

No new phone system will be installed, at least for now. According to several county workers familiar with the county phones, no new system was needed anyway. Ronco Communications, which maintains the 10-year-old system, said the present phones can be operational for years. Bill Rutland, president of AFSCME Local 182, the Niagara County Blue Collar Union, believes the phone plan was unnecessary from the start. "The Niagara County legislators spent months arguing with bidders, consultants, department heads, and political opponents about switches, routers, etc., but the fact is the phones work fine. County workers answer your calls and direct you to where you desire. This was all just a huge waste of money." Although contacted by the Reporter, Helwig declined to comment.

A longtime Republican Party insider, Helwig was one of the "hidden hands" behind the downfall of former Wheatfield supervisor Tim Demler. There, Helwig acted as a confidential informant to the media for a sordid soap opera where Demler carried on a secret love affair with a married town employee in exotic, out of the way locations such as Jamestown, where the couple allegedly visited the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnez Museum & Center for Comedy. Later, Helwig made numerous charges against Demler and became particularly incensed when Demler had the audacity to oppose the opening of a tea house owned by Helwig's mother based on longstanding zoning ordinances. At tonight's meeting, representatives of ECC and Canon will ask for an additional $12,000.

Whether the additional money is approved or not, Helwig's role in the complete waste of more than $144,500 in tax dollars arguably merits his dismissal, as well as, most certainly, a thorough investigation.





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