Conflicts Of Interest, Lack Of Transparency Mar Our Attempt To Build A Nationwide Emergency Wireless Network

from the when-can-we-officially-call-it-a-boondoggle dept

Prompted by the communications network failures during 9/11, roughly fourteen years ago the government began exploring the building of a nationwide emergency communications network specifically for first responders and emergency personnel. While it took a decade of Congressional bickering, the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 finally created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet). FirstNet was given $7 billion and tasked with building a nationwide LTE network that largely piggybacks on the networks of existing carriers, delivering what the project's website declares will be a "a force multiplier, increasing collaboration to help emergency responders save more lives, solve more crimes and keep our communities safer."

Except as we previously noted, allegations emerged early on that the project had been stocked with executives from the nation's biggest wireless carriers, who were criticized for giving closed-door preference to AT&T and Verizon friends, and elbowing out folks with actual emergency, first responder or emergency backgrounds. The result was a project that has seen little actual progress, gridlocked by a raise by the carriers to corner the billions in project funds. To ease concerns, the organization investigated itself late last year and unsurprisingly found no indications of wrong doing or conflict of interest.

Fast forward a year, and the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Commerce has released a report (pdf) that's nowhere near as forgiving. According to the study, there were numerous conflicts of interest, and FirstNet board members were pretty fast and loose when it came to adhering to disclosure rules, either filing late, or when they did file -- not actually bothering to disclose conflicts of interest that did exist:
"Finally, all four of these Board members continued to engage in decision making, even though they were not in compliance with the financial disclosure requirements. Departmental officials could have elevated or called attention to these issues, in order to prevent or remedy these conditions. But, without a more effective ethics program in place for FirstNet, the Department has not created sufficient internal controls to ensure a sound process for the filing of Board members’ financial disclosures."
While it uses very polite language to say so, the report unsurprisingly found that conflict of interest problems arose because FirstNet wasn't paying very close attention to what few rules it had. The study found FirstNet also appears to have significant failures when it comes to expenditures, decision documentation, contract bids and transparency, pretty much across the board:
"...the FirstNet Board operational procedures for monitoring potential conflicts of interest need improvement...In addition, FirstNet contracting practices lacked transparent award competition, sufficient oversight of hiring, adequate monitoring, and procedures to prevent payment of erroneous costs...Inconsistencies in record keeping and administration suggest a lack of active or centralized supervision and quality control, thereby creating gaps in oversight and increasing the risk of noncompliance with disclosure requirements among FirstNet Board members. This is especially critical, given Board member ties to the telecommunications industry."
The government is apparently still in the process of determining whether any of the violations require "additional administrative action," though many of the original board members (and FirstNet GM and former Verizon exec Bill D'Agostino) have already moved on. FirstNet chair Sue Swenson, meanwhile, acknowledges that "some administrative missteps" took place, but insists that the project is finally on the right path. Hopefully that's comforting to the people who'll be impacted by the major domestic disasters of the last few years. At least we still have ham radio operators, who'll probably still be carrying disaster communications responsibilities on their volunteer shoulders a decade from now.

Filed Under: conflicts of interest, emergency, firstnet, wireless
Companies: firstnet


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 16 Dec 2014 @ 4:47pm

    'No foxes in this hen-house, just us chickens'

    To ease concerns, the organization investigated itself late last year and unsurprisingly found no indications of wrong doing or conflict of interest.

    I just... I have to ask... what moron, years or decades back, first thought that internal investigations were a good idea? If someone, group or individual, is suspected of wrongdoing, how completely and utterly broken does your mind need to be to think that asking the accused to investigate themselves is a good idea?

    Are the people who believe that such a thing is a good idea hopeless optimists, who just cannot fathom why someone would ever hide the truth, even if that truth would implicate them? Are they suffering from a specific form of brain damage, where they simply cannot grasp the idea of 'conflict of interest'?

    Really, the idea that 'internal investigations' are even remotely considered acceptable, it just boggles the mind.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 16 Dec 2014 @ 5:05pm

      Re: 'No foxes in this hen-house, just us chickens'

      "what moron, years or decades back, first thought that internal investigations were a good idea?"

      The answer is obvious: the people with the most to lose from a negative investigation. What boggles MY mind is how people went on to have any faith in such investigations who *weren't* internal?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Derek Kerton (profile), 17 Dec 2014 @ 11:43am

      Re: 'No foxes in this hen-house, just us chickens'

      "what moron, years or decades back, first thought that internal investigations were a good idea?"

      Always internal folks. And it IS a good idea. For them.

      An internal investigation is pretty much ALWAYS a response to the risk of an external investigation. It is done in the hopes that the line "No need for that. There already has been an investigation." would give enough political cover to stave off a pending external investigation. It is the FUD of investigations.

      The biased investigation is then put in pretty folders and cover pages, and presented by politicians "friendly" to the cause. They use words to describe it, such as "rigorous, detailed, no stone left unturned, thorough, unbiased, aggressive", avoiding the word "internal". Sometimes (well, often) that is enough confusion and uncertainty about whether a legit investigation has been done to quash any legit investigation. It's a version of false equivalence, like how 1% of scientists can say there is no AGW, thus "the debate is still ongoing". It doesn't take much doubt to create the veil of a 50/50 "he said, she said" debate.

      The beauty of it for the internal crew is that it can usually be considered billable hours, and charged back to someone. Sure, it doesn't work every time, but that's a bet worth taking every time.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Thrudd, 17 Dec 2014 @ 5:36am

    internal affairs et al

    Hey. If it is good enough for police lawyers doctors and the communications industries then it's good enough for them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Judd Sandage, 17 Dec 2014 @ 6:44am

    Yeah, us Ham's will carry the load

    Those of us Licensed Amateurs will still be providing (free of charge) comms for decades to come, cause we can get the job done, not stand around and bicker about who should do what, what might work, what might not, weather or not the company one person works for deserves to get the cash, or if we can piggy back on someone else's network.

    Hell with 7 billion I could have built a nation wide radio network that would have allowed someone to talk from one side of the country to the other, using custom radios and a small spectrum of radio frequency that I would have snagged from the FCC, and never even bothered with the telcos... no need as their towers always get either knocked down or overloaded in times of disaster. probably have spent a billion just getting everything up and running, used a few million more a year for maintenance and gave the rest back.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Dec 2014 @ 10:09am

    This makes me feel a bit better about the Dutch national emergency network. At least, we got to the technical difficulty stage of implementation, before these corporate politics slowed things down.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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