AT&T is trying to keep its state contract secret. Cspire argues the public should be able to see the contract and presto, a court fight broke out Wednesday. The Geoff Pender reported in the Clarion-Ledger:
Details of the state’s multi-million dollar, 12-year deal with BellSouth/AT&T for landline and internet service have been secret since 2006, when a Hinds County judge issued a protective order.
But competitor Cellular South Inc./C Spire says contract and transparency reform passed by the Legislature this year should prompt the release of BellSouth’s pricing and other details to allow fair competition for a new contract in late 2017 or early 2018. Cellular South currently holds the state contract for wireless phone service.
The stakes are high. One state official estimated the BellSouth contract is worth more than $30 million a year, counting local governments piggybacking on the state’s contract.
The two squared off in Hinds County Chancery Court on Wednesday and are awaiting a judge’s ruling.
Cellular South attorney Sheldon Alston said that after recent corruption scandals such as the state Department of Corrections contract bribery case, the Legislature “said to shine a light” on state contracts. He noted Cellular South’s contract with the state for wireless service, including detailed pricing, is available online at the state’s Department of Information and Technology Services website. A state official estimated Cellular South’s wireless contract is worth about $13 million a year, counting local governments piggybacking on that contract.
“We are a competitor and want to compete against (BellSouth) in 2018,” Alston said. “We think it’s in the best interest of the taxpayer for there to be fair competition.”
But BellSouth attorney Jack Crawford argued: “(Alston) admits they’re trying to get our confidential info for a competitive advantage. They’re saying that because the Legislature amended a law in 2015, they should be able to get our 2005 contract.” (KF: note to Crawford: that is the very nature of competitive bidding.)
Alston said: “We’re not asking for a competitive advantage. We’re trying to stop a competitive advantage and level the playing field.”
Cellular South is asking Judge William Singletary to revoke his 2006 order. It was issued after competing companies back then attempted to get copies of pricing and other info BellSouth submitted for the state’s request for proposals for phone and internet service. At the time, the state’s open records law allowed records containing a company’s trade secrets or confidential commercial or financial information to be sealed if they obtained a court order.
But in passing contract and transparency reform this year, the Legislature amended the law. It said provisions of a state contract that contain the commodities or services purchased, the price to be paid and the term of the contract “shall not be deemed to be a trade secret or confidential commercial or financial information” and shall be open to the public.
Lawmakers this year also amended the law to specify ITS contracts. It says: “Contracts … that are awarded or executed by any state agency, including, but not limited to, the Department of Information Technology Services, and the Department of Transportation, shall not be exempt from the Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983.
BellSouth said the new law isn’t retroactive, and would only apply to contracts after July 1 of this year. But Cellular South says the contract is in effect – and appears to have been frequently changed and then extended without any competitive process – and should be open. Both point to case law for their arguments........
Alston questioned the BellSouth contract appearing to change over time in prices and services and equipment offered, and it being extended from a 10-year to a 12-year deal without any competitive process. He said no one knows if this is kosher to the original contract, “because we can’t see it.”
Ainsworth said: “We would only do contract amendments or renewals for scope and extended terms that were forecasted in the original RFP.”
Local governments who wish to avoid the RFP or bidding process can purchase service and equipment from the state’s BellSouth contract.
Some Mississippi school district technology coordinators, participating in the “E-Rate” federal program to provide telecom and internet access to schools, have complained about the state’s BellSouth contract. They aired some of these complaints to the Federal Communications Commission.
They questioned the contract being extended without competition, and say that while most districts have opted to use the state’s contract, many of those who held competition received lower prices than from the state contract. They also questioned the state having a 12-year long contract for services in a field like telecommunications that changes rapidly with technology, prices and competition. Rest of article.