Conflicts Of Interest, Lack Of Transparency Mar Our Attempt To Build A Nationwide Emergency Wireless Network
from the when can we officially call it a boondoggle dept
Prompted by the communications network failures during 9/11, roughly fourteen years ago the government began exploring the building of a nationwide emergency communications network specifically for first responders and emergency personnel. While it took a decade of Congressional bickering, the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 finally created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet). FirstNet was given $7 billion and tasked with building a nationwide LTE network that largely piggybacks on the networks of existing carriers, delivering what the project’s website declares will be a “a force multiplier, increasing collaboration to help emergency responders save more lives, solve more crimes and keep our communities safer.”
Except as we previously noted, allegations emerged early on that the project had been stocked with executives from the nation’s biggest wireless carriers, who were criticized for giving closed-door preference to AT&T and Verizon friends, and elbowing out folks with actual emergency, first responder or emergency backgrounds. The result was a project that has seen little actual progress, gridlocked by a raise by the carriers to corner the billions in project funds. To ease concerns, the organization investigated itself late last year and unsurprisingly found no indications of wrong doing or conflict of interest.
Fast forward a year, and the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Commerce has released a report (pdf) that’s nowhere near as forgiving. According to the study, there were numerous conflicts of interest, and FirstNet board members were pretty fast and loose when it came to adhering to disclosure rules, either filing late, or when they did file — not actually bothering to disclose conflicts of interest that did exist:
“Finally, all four of these Board members continued to engage in decision making, even though they were not in compliance with the financial disclosure requirements. Departmental officials could have elevated or called attention to these issues, in order to prevent or remedy these conditions. But, without a more effective ethics program in place for FirstNet, the Department has not created sufficient internal controls to ensure a sound process for the filing of Board members? financial disclosures.”
While it uses very polite language to say so, the report unsurprisingly found that conflict of interest problems arose because FirstNet wasn’t paying very close attention to what few rules it had. The study found FirstNet also appears to have significant failures when it comes to expenditures, decision documentation, contract bids and transparency, pretty much across the board:
“…the FirstNet Board operational procedures for monitoring potential conflicts of interest need improvement…In addition, FirstNet contracting practices lacked transparent award competition, sufficient oversight of hiring, adequate monitoring, and procedures to prevent payment of erroneous costs…Inconsistencies in record keeping and administration suggest a lack of active or centralized supervision and quality control, thereby creating gaps in oversight and increasing the risk of noncompliance with disclosure requirements among FirstNet Board members. This is especially critical, given Board member ties to the telecommunications industry.”
The government is apparently still in the process of determining whether any of the violations require “additional administrative action,” though many of the original board members (and FirstNet GM and former Verizon exec Bill D’Agostino) have already moved on. FirstNet chair Sue Swenson, meanwhile, acknowledges that “some administrative missteps” took place, but insists that the project is finally on the right path. Hopefully that’s comforting to the people who’ll be impacted by the major domestic disasters of the last few years. At least we still have ham radio operators, who’ll probably still be carrying disaster communications responsibilities on their volunteer shoulders a decade from now.