August 3, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
As Attorney General of Texas, Greg Abbott routinely touted his office as among the nation’s most efficient at collecting child support. In his campaign for governor, he did the same. Now those claims are being brought into question as reports trickle out about incompetence and massive cost overruns in the installation of a new data processing system. So desperate were Abbott and new AG Kenneth Paxton to keep the debacle out of the public light that one attorney in the AG’s office was fired for complaining about the new system and then paid hush money to keep quiet (Dallas Morning News, 8/2/16).Worse, the cost overruns continue to mount up with no end in sight. And worse still, the system appears to be no improvement over the status quo and may be too complicated and inefficient to upgrade existing technology.
In September of last year, attorney Martha Fitzwater Pigott complained to her supervisor, Maria Friesen that the AG’s office was not in compliance with federal regulations.
Fitzwater Pigott was overseeing a contract with tech giant Accenture, which was hired in 2010 by then-Attorney General Greg Abbott to overhaul Texas' antiquated child support system. In his run for governor, Abbott routinely touted the success of the Child Support Division.
But the nearly decade-long effort to super-charge child support investigations and streamline loads of data has been plagued with problems, including numerous documented failures by the lead contractor, which independent reviewers said lacked the technical skills to do the job…
"Pigott was terminated within a few weeks of her reporting and voicing concerns that [the Child Support Division] was not properly implementing or complying with federal contracting rules regarding its funding programs," [Attorney for Pigott, Phillip Durst] wrote.
Pigott was fired shortly after complaining to Friesen and, in yet another shady transaction, was paid the equivalent of about six months’ salary conditioned on her silence. Those funds came in the form of “emergency leave pay” that’s intended by state law to provide a few days’ pay for bereaved employees. Apparently AG Paxton and others have been misusing emergency leave funds for some time.
In a series of stories earlier this year, The News revealed how the AG and several other agencies had misused emergency leave to pay out settlements or provide financial send-offs to favored employees, a practice Abbott and Comptroller Glenn Hegar subsequently ordered be stopped.
Leaders in both the House and Senate have pledged to close a loophole that allowed Paxton and other officials to dole out loads of emergency leave with no rules or oversight.
Meanwhile, Pigott’s alarms were all too accurate. Indeed, the very person to whom she raised her concerns and who fired her apparently for doing so, later made public statements essentially tracking what Pigott had said.
As the project came to a halt late last year, Deputy Attorney General Mara Friesen said in a letter to the Legislative Budget Board that moving forward "would have resulted in runaway development costs, overly complex systems, increased maintenance costs and significant delays -- even as much as well past 2020."
Meanwhile, the new system appears to be every bit as bad and expensive as reported, and perhaps more so.
Commonly referred to as "T2," the child support data project was in such disarray that earlier this year the federal government froze its funding, only to unfreeze it in May.
With that funding restored, Accenture is expected to ask the state for more money, while state officials are mulling whether to sue the company for not delivering on its promise or, more likely, shell out more money to get the job done.
Records indicate Fitzwater Pigott sounded the alarm weeks before several news reports would detail how, under Abbott's command, the T2 project had ballooned to a price tag of $310 million -- about $100 million over budget -- at the same time Accenture had delivered little of value to the state.
Years of reviews by independent software experts showed that each time Accenture dropped the ball, Abbott's office responded by giving the company more money and autonomy…
By the time Paxton inherited the project from Abbott last year, it had grown into a massive offshoring endeavor, with more than 165 programmers in India tapping into Texas' system to get work done and make fixes on a messy tangle of dozens of software applications that didn't play well together.
As details of yet another Texas technology contract blunder trickled out, and a House committee launched an investigation, Paxton removed about a dozen workers from the project.
In short, now Governor Greg Abbott appears to have been misrepresenting matters regarding child support to the people of Texas. There’s no end in sight for taxpayers as costs continue to grow for a computer system that doesn’t work as planned and is vastly more expensive than originally stated. How Accenture came to be hired appears to be a topic that it would be worthwhile for a journalist, a lawyer or the state legislature to inquire about. Otherwise, why would Abbott and Paxton go to such lengths to cover up Accenture’s thoroughgoing incompetence?
This is scarcely the only scandal to plague child support enforcement authorities in the various states. Indeed, it seems that not a day goes by that some child support employee somewhere isn’t pilfering from the till, computer systems malfunction and efforts to improve matters only result in greater malfeasance.
Are we surprised? We are not. When in the course of human events, there has been a large pot of money in government coffers, corruption has never been far away. So it’s no surprise when state bureaucrats discover ways to skim a bit off the top of the billions that flow through state child support agencies. And of course computer systems notoriously fail at times throwing chaos into already badly managed agencies tasked with collecting and disbursing funds.
And that’s not to mention the other, better-known failings of state child support enforcement authorities. Those involve the routine identification of the wrong man as father and the subsequent refusal to admit having done so. Overcharging some non-custodial parents while failing to pay custodial ones what they’re due is common. So is jailing parents who fall behind thereby insuring that their debts increase even as they’re prevented from earning and paying. And of course no child support system anywhere would dream of requiring the money to be used for the child.
Thirty-five or so years after the requirement that states collect and disburse child support came into effect, this is where we are. We have massive bureaucracies that are best known for their incompetence, unresponsiveness and, not occasionally, dishonesty. Is this the best we can do?
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Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.
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