Opinion | Sunday, 30 May 2010

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Strange coincidences or poorly hidden interests?

Evarist Bartolo has apparently made it his business to represent the interests of a private firm in Parliament. He has been doing so for some time now, following closely their successes and failures when competing for ICT tenders.
On 16 May, in an article published in this paper, he drew his own conclusions about a MITA tender for an eLearning Solution for which the firm Computer Domain was competing. He did so while he was pretending to wait for the facts in a reply to a question he put to me in Parliament. His conclusions are naturally baseless. Worse, they are malicious and intended to serve interests that are too poorly hidden not to be understood.
Computer Domain is the nominated sub-contractor for a company that has been short-listed for this tender. Its chance to win the tender was frustrated (as were those of other short-listed tenderers) when I ordered the process to be stopped because I was informed of a possible conflict of interest – the details are below. Bartolo not only asked questions in Parliament but in this paper claimed that the conflict of interest was an excuse and the real reason was because some company that Government favoured was not short-listed!
Total invention but not new – in a previous tender he claimed that the evaluation board were favouring a company whose owner was supposedly close to me! God knows whom he was referring to but what is certain, because it is well documented, is that his dearly beloved Computer Domain had an inside track to rest on! Did Bartolo know of this inside track?
The end result was that Computer Domain appealed that tender and lost its appeal and the deposit. In this tender it did not even bother to appeal!
For those who are interested, the facts concerning the eLearning tender are set out below.
The procurement of the e-Learning solution started on 18 September 2009 and was cancelled on the 10 May 2010 on my own instructions. The facts that led me to take this decision are the following:
1. The submissions of offers closed on the 11 November 2009. Nine submissions were made and all were deemed eligible by the Evaluation Board.
2. The Evaluation Board set up by MITA’s CEO included three MITA employees and an Education Ministry official. They were assisted by a Technical Advisor and a Financial Advisor, both MITA employees. As is normal I was not consulted on the choice of these members and advisors.
3. After a public call, MITA appointed a technical consultant, UK firm IT Consulting Services Limited. That company appointed three people to perform advice to MITA: Tom McMullan, Owen Lynch and Laurie O’Donnell. Significantly, Bartolo named only one of these three.
4 The companies that submitted their offers were:
• Benchmark Softec (P) Ltd., Excelsoft Technologies Pvt. Ltd and Digital Borneo Ltd. Consortium
• Blackboard International B.V. and Loqus Solutions Ltd. Consortium
• eLP + Consortium
• Fronter as
• Hewlett-Packard International Trade B.V.
• IBM Malta Ltd.
• IX Consortium
• Megabyte Ltd & SIVECO Romania SA Consortium
• Young Digital Planet
Again, siginificantly, Bartolo named all firms but three: Excelsoft, Digital Borneo (which played a big part as things turned out) and the only Maltese company which participated, Megabyte Limited.
5. On 10 December, the Evaluation Board was informed that Laurie O’Donnell had commercial ties with one of the sub-contractors of the tender participating companies. The Board decided that this person would be removed from the consultancy service, while his two colleagues were kept on board.
6. The Evaluation Board completed its report on 12 February 2010 and handed it over to the CEO on the 1 March 2010 – a fact well recorded by Bartolo. The report was sent back for clarifications including explanations from the participants. The Evaluation Board re-sent the report to MITA’s Chief Executive on the 9 April 2010 – a fact which Bartolo ignores to give the impression that the report had been at the MITA Board of Directors since February 2010. It had not.
7. On the 5 March 2010 (two months before the MITA Board of Directors received the report of the Evaluation Board from the Chief Executive), MITA’s Chairman was informed by a representative of Digital Borneo Ltd – a company that Bartolo ‘forgot’ to mention – that in his opinion the consulting company still had a conflict of interest notwithstanding the exclusion of O’Donell. This was the first instance that the Chairman had heard of a potential case of conflict of interest.
8. On the same day, the Chairman asked the Chief Executive to investigate this allegation. This was the first time the said information was brought to the attention of the Chief Executive; in fact, there was no reference to this matter in the Evaluation Board’s report that had been sent to him on 12 February.
9. The Chief Executive requested a legal opinion regarding the possibility of a conflict of interest, which legal opinion was given on the 22 March and concluded that:
• The Evaluation Board had acted correctly when they excluded the consultant O’Donell from the process and technically the evaluation was therefore not effected by the conflict of interest once this was declared and the person was excluded;
• However, although the procedure was legally correct, it could give rise to speculation that the exclusion of O’Donell was not enough and that even the consulting company itself should have been excluded;
• If MITA felt that the speculation could in fact hinder or lengthen the process, it was recommended that the consultants report is either reviewed, or ignored and replaced altogether.
10. The Evaluation Board sent its second technical report to the Chief Executive on the 9 April 2010, who, in turn, prepared his recommendations to his Board of Directors on the 26 April 2010.
11. During a meeting the Board of Directors had with me on the 28 April 2010, the MITA Chairman and Chief Executive reported this matter and explained to me that although the information they had was that the Evaluation Board had taken the necessary precautions and there was also the comfort of legal opinion which from a technical aspect states that they acted correctly, there was still a possibility that the process would have been tainted due to the consulting company being a relatively small company and hence there was a risk that the governance structure was not able to guarantee the operative independence of the two consultants who had continued working from the one who had declared his conflict of interest.
12. In the light of all this, I immediately gave the Board a Ministerial directive to stop the process at once and issue a fresh tender even though I knew that this directive was going to slow down the implementation of the project considerably.
I stress that this was not the first time I had taken similar decisions. Only a few months before the opening of Mater Dei, during the negotiations awarding the IT tender, we found out that there was a real possibility that a person on the government side was passing on information to the other side. I had no hesitation to stop negotiations, abort the process and restart a fresh call in spite of the sensitivity of the time of the process. The suspected official is currently undergoing criminal proceedings.
My decision to cancel the process and order a new one to start was mine alone. I took it within minutes of first hearing of the case and in front of some 10 witnesses present at the meeting. I took the decision without consulting the legal opinion and I was not even aware of who had tendered, let alone who had or had not been shortlisted by the process.
I am here mentioning names, circumstances, dates and facts. I have done this in Parliament already and Bartolo’s reaction was utter silence.
Bartolo’s article in this newspaper proves he was in contact with one of the bidders. There is no other way he could have known the circumstances he mentions. I invite him to make the name of this company public. He quotes comments supposedly from companies that participated in the tender. I challenge him to name them.
Unlike Bartolo, it is not my habit to interfere in public procurement processes. Since he has none of these scruples, I would not expect him to endorse this basic notion of good governance of allowing procurement processes to run independently of political interference.

Austin Gatt is Minister forInfrastructure, Transport and Communications

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