IM this article to a friend!

April 17, 2003

Commission for deaf audited

From: Arizona Republic, AZ - Apr 17, 2003

State agency erred on purchases; no criminal acts found

Nena Baker
The Arizona Republic

The Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing failed to follow rules for purchasing more than $1 million in goods and services, including payments of nearly $803,000 to a single vendor.

A report by the Arizona auditor general found serious procedural flaws but no evidence of criminal wrongdoing at the commission, which has a budget of $5.4 million a year.

"We did make some mistakes," said Sheri Collins, the commission's executive director. "But we have taken steps to ensure they will not be repeated."

Collins attributed the problems to poor communication among staff members, a lack of understanding of procurement procedures and a limited number of vendors equipped to serve the specialized needs of the deaf community.

The audit covered a period from July 2000 to May 2002; commission staff members are undergoing training with the state Procurement Office to make sure the mistakes are not repeated, said Collins, who has been with the agency five years.

Gov. Janet Napolitano and House Republican leaders are satisfied the audit sufficiently informed the agency of procedural problems. Neither the governor nor House Majority Whip Randy Graf of Green Valley anticipated disciplinary action would be needed.

The agency, which provides services including text telephone (TTY) distribution and repair and telecommunications relay services to about 500,000 deaf and hearing impaired in Arizona, is overseen by a 14-member commission.

Chairman Chris Schneck expressed confidence in Collins, the agency's first deaf director, and said the commission was not pursuing any action against her.

"She is extremely well-respected by the commission and the community," said Schneck, a senior financial adviser at Merrill Lynch.

But another commissioner said the agency is failing to serve the needs of the deaf community under Collins' direction.

"There's a severe shortage of sign language interpreters in Arizona, there are no services for deaf and blind citizens," said Jeremy Brunson, a graduate student and interpreter for the deaf.

At issue are contracts worth nearly $803,000 awarded to one vendor, Hands On Communications, a Phoenix firm that provided the commission with an array of services, including consulting, video production, equipment distribution and on-air talent for the state's "Sign Out" weekly community service television program. Hands On moved to Arizona from California in 2000 after winning its first contract with the agency.

Among the auditor general's key findings:

* Collins and the firm's president, Robert Daniels, entered into five consecutive consulting contracts of $5,000 each, keeping each contract under the agency's delegated spending authority.

* The agency added $57,300 on top of a $121,300 contract to Hands On for public service announcements for the state's "Sign Out" TV program. Hands On couldn't complete the job without technical assistance, which required the additional payment.

* The agency requested proposals for a $256,550 contract to develop and produce open-captioned educational videotapes on May 21, 2001, and wanted the project to be completed by June 30, 2001.

Hands On was the only vendor that submitted a proposal during that short time period and was awarded the contract on June 12, 2001. However, "(t)he vendor did not complete the project until 11 months later," the auditor general found.

State procurement officials said the commission faces challenges in finding vendors that can meet its specialized requirements. Collins said her agency is working with the procurement office to expand the list of vendors that can do business with the agency.

Daniels said his firm was uniquely positioned to provide an array of services to the commission.

"Because most of us are deaf and hard of hearing with extensive experience in public relations, media, and services, we are well-placed in handling these services," he said.

Collins said Hands On's outreach efforts increased equipment distribution in Arizona dramatically, from 338 machines in the hands of deaf and hard of hearing citizens in 2000 to 2,147 devices in 2001.

Copyright 2003, All rights reserved.