Press-Republican

October 13, 2012

Ethics Board: Essex Co. clerk, deputy violated ethics rules

County officials to pay fines for trying to sway contract

By LOHR McKINSTRY
Press-Republican

---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — Essex County Clerk Joseph Provoncha and one of his deputies have been reprimanded by the County Ethics Board and fined a total of $4,000 for trying to improperly influence the awarding of a contract.

In a decision released at a meeting Friday morning, the Ethics Board said Provoncha and Deputy Clerk Janet Cross admitted they violated county ethics policy in dealing with a vendor for document-scanning software and equipment for the County Clerk’s Office.

Both Provoncha and Cross denied doing so when contacted after the session, saying that although they agreed to and signed the findings of the Ethics Board, they believe they did nothing intentionally wrong.

The decision also requires Provoncha to resign from two of his auxiliary positions, deputy county manager and county mailroom supervisor. Both are unpaid posts.

STEERED CONTRACT

The case went to the Ethics Board in early October 2011, after emails released to the media under the State Freedom of Information Law showed Cross had been communicating with the vendor, Info Quick Solutions of Liverpool, during the bid process. Provoncha was also accused of successfully steering the contract to Info Quick even though the firm was not the low or recommended bidder.

Provoncha was fined $3,500, and Cross $500 as part of the decision, County Ethics Board Chairman Michael Orticelle said. Members James Herrmann, Frank Kearns and Phyllis Klein were also present, with member Alexander Shmulsky absent.

As part of the settlement agreement, Provoncha admitted “he improperly allowed IQS to prepare an evaluation of all other RFP (request for proposals submissions) … and improperly used the evaluation and submitted the evaluation to other county officials in making the determination to award the contract to IQS.”

The contract was for $76,800 a year for five years to provide the software and scanning equipment in the Clerk’s Office. Info Quick was the fourth-lowest bidder.

County Manager Daniel Palmer and County Purchasing Agent Linda Wolf had recommended the contract go to DocCenter of Omaha, Neb., the second-lowest bidder at $57,000 a year.

NO CRIMINAL CONDUCT

In the decision, Provoncha also admitted he used the county computer network for personal use on several occasions dating back to 2009, and that on the Info Quick contract, he should have known Cross was not qualified to manage the procurement process and not properly supervised when she did so.

The Ethics Board said the clerk violated the County Ethics Policy, Policy Manual and Computer Use Policy.

Both Provoncha and Cross agreed to reread the County Computer Use Policy and adhere to its requirements in the future. Both will also have letters of reprimand placed in their personnel files.

Cross said she did not want to specifically comment on the board’s findings, which were that she “sent and received extensive emails with a representative of IQS regarding the RFP and its process, providing to and receiving information from IQS which was not provided to or received by any other bidders, in violation of the Essex County Procurement Policy and the laws of the State of New York.”

An investigation by Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne, appointed special prosecutor in the case, found no criminal conduct, and no charges were brought against anyone.

SAYS UNFAIR

The decision said Cross “admits that she unintentionally failed to follow the County Procurement Policy in her dealings with IQS (and) admits that she should have known her communications with IQS were improper.”

The Ethics Board said she “did unintentionally impart confidential information” about the contract to Info Quick. Cross was friends with an employee of Info Quick, and the emails also reflected that friendship.

The Ethics Board stressed that neither Provoncha nor Cross received any financial or other compensation for their efforts and that Cross has been a county employee in good standing for 34 years. The board said she cooperated fully with the investigation and recommended that she retain her job with the Clerk’s Office.

Provoncha is an elected official, while Cross is appointed to her post.

Contacted afterward, Provoncha confirmed that Cross will keep her job. She will be barred from any future bid or procurement processes, however.

Provoncha said he does not feel the Ethics Board inquiry was a fair proceeding.

“I don’t believe they listened to both sides. Before, it (the document contract) was professional services (and required no bid process). Now it goes out to bid. We did what we thought was right. We didn’t favor any company over another.”

He stressed that he didn’t exchange emails with anyone at the company and is not mentioned in any emails.

‘DRAGGED THROUGH MUD’

The county is still using the Info Quick software and equipment, now in the second year of the contract.

Speaking from his office by phone after the meeting, Info Quick Solutions owner Bernie Owens said Provoncha’s conduct was above board as far as he’s concerned.

“There was nothing anything between Mr. Provoncha and myself as far as lunches, dinners, anything,” Owens said. “There was absolutely nothing between IQS and Mr. Provoncha. There were never any gifts or anything underhanded.”

He said the county saved $100,000 over the length of the contract by using Info Quick instead of the previous vendor.

Owens praised Provoncha as trying to do the right thing to get Essex County a better contract.

“Mr. Provoncha has integrity, and I think he’s a sensitive person. I feel our company and people associated with us have been dragged through the mud.”

Email Lohr McKinstry:

lmckinstry@pressrepublican.com