After Pa. spent $800M on a 'worthless' radio system, audit seeks to help get 'it right this time'

After Pennsylvania taxpayers got hit with paying for an $800 million statewide radio system that has been described as worthless, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale wants to be sure history doesn't repeat itself with the system that is replacing it.

DePasquale announced on Thursday that his office will soon begin an audit of the $49 million contract for the new radio system that is being deployed and the Pennsylvania State Police are already using in parts of the state. It also is intended to serve other agencies. 

"The time is right to take a deep dive to ensure Pennsylvania gets it right this time," he said at a Capitol news conference.

The audit will look at the bidding process that led to the awarding of a contract in 2016 to Chicago,Ill.-based Motorola Solutions for the replacement radio system that is expected to be fully operational statewide by 2021. The audit also will look at the first two years of costs associated with that contract's implementation and the current status.

"Should my auditors find areas where changes are recommended, I will push for all involved to re-open the contract to make necessary improvement to serve the needs of the emergency response community and the taxpayers," DePasquale said.

He said the audit also will dive into at least the final two years of the 1996 contract with Melbourne, Fla.-based Harris Corp. for the old radio system that was supposed to cost $179 million.

Over time, the project's scope expanded and the state kept pouring money into it letting the tab skyrocket to $800 million despite continual complaints about it leaving state troopers unable to communicate with each other.

"What ticks me off is that in the 20 years of this contract, the bureaucrats in Harrisburg never could make sure the system was working properly," DePasquale said at the outset of the news conference. "Who paid the price? Not the bureaucrats but the taxpayers and the state police."

Sens. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny County, and Bob Mensch, R-Montgomery County, plan to introduce legislation that would require the auditor general to audit and review issues related to the statewide radio system to ensure resources invested in it going forward are properly spent.

DePasquale pointed out it took the 48-day manhunt for convicted cop killer Eric Frein who killed one state trooper and wounded another in a 2014 ambush outside the state police barracks in the Pocono Mountains when "the statewide radio network proved completely worthless" to wake up the bureaucrats to the failures of the old system.

State police Major Diane Stackhouse told senators at a March hearing the old system's portable radios blinked and beeped during the manhunt, creating a safety issue for troopers. 

"I want to make sure the safety of police officers come before bureaucratic paper pushers," DePasquale said.

The auditor general avoided questions about whether he was aware of a criminal investigation underway into individuals associated with the Harris contract. 

"That would be up to the attorney general's office to comment along those lines," DePasquale repeated when asked if he had testified before a grand jury or was subpoenaed to testify.

A spokesman for the attorney general's office said, "We can't confirm or deny the existence of any investigation."

DePasquale said two prior auditor generals had expressed interest in auditing the Harris contract but never carried through with one. DePasquale also has been reported by LNP as having begun an inquiry into the Harris contract but dropped it after meeting with Harris representatives in 2015.

DePasquale avoided discussing why he didn't pursue the audit back then, saying, "I believe the time is now right to do this audit."

He said an audit by the governor's budget office that looked at the maintenance contract with Harris from 2012 to 2015 identified 11 issues including excessive billing, questionable material markups, and other concerns that resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars of questioned costs. He said that review will be helpful to his team in the audit they are embarking on.

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