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Texas Governor Criticized Over $295M Contact Tracing Deal

Gov. Abbott awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to a little-known technology company without much legislative oversight. Legislators on both sides are concerned about transparency and citizen protection.

(TNS) — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is pushing back hard against bipartisan criticism of a hastily awarded contract that put a little-known North Texas technology company in charge of the state’s effort to track down people who may be exposed to the coronavirus.

The company, MTX Group, asserted in its bid for the $295 million contract — with little evidence — that it had “extensive experience” doing contact tracing in several U.S. states.

“Governor Abbott pointed to MTX’s experience in implementing COVID-19 response systems including contact tracing in other states,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said, listing 10 states that include New York, Florida and Massachusetts. “Importantly, every aspect of this contract is being paid for with federal funds.”

Wittman also said Abbott had gotten assurances that the privacy of Texans would be respected under the terms of the deal — a major concern of conservative activists who have grown increasingly critical of the Republican governor.

MTX has declined repeated requests for interviews and has refused to answer questions about the work it has done in other states. According to a published report, the company had about 200 employees as of late last year, most of them in India.

Meanwhile, legislators from both parties — caught off guard by the massive contract — continue to heap criticism on the quick bid solicitation process, the lack of transparency and concerns over the civil liberties of people who will get calls from the contact tracers.

According to the Department of State Health Services, which will oversee the contract, bidders were given about two days to put together proposals that were due on May 7. The multimillion dollar contract was signed by acting Health and Human Services Commissioner Phil Wilson on May 13. That’s the same day Austin-based lobbyists Dean and Andrea McWilliams list as the start date for lobby deals with MTX they each report to be worth $50,000.

Privacy Concerns

East Texas Rep. James White, R-Hillister, said legislative oversight of the contract is needed and on Friday he called on Abbott to convene a 30-day special session so that such “momentous” decisions get a proper vetting at the Texas Capitol. White said it didn’t matter to him that the money came from Washington, telling Hearst Newspapers “we continually need to be good stewards of that money.”

“I am concerned about privacy. I am concerned about the amount of monies that are being extended with very minimal legislative oversight and engagement,” White added. “We’ve got to get in the foxhole with the governor. We’ve got to own up to this. This is nothing that we can wait (on).”

Wittman said the state has made clear that MTX “must protect the personal privacy” of Texans subject to contact tracing.

“As Governor Abbott has said, your personal health information belongs only to you, and only you get to decide what can be shared,” Wittman said.

The company also said in its proposal that it could use “outsourcing” to get more contact tracers, but the bid documents require a U.S.-based workforce and Wittman said “only Texans will be hired for contact tracing.”

Key Details Redacted

The contract has stirred controversy since Hearst Newspapers first reported on it a week ago. On Friday, health authorities finally released a redacted copy of the $295 million contract, blacking out large portions of MTX’s bid proposal.

An unredacted version of the contract, obtained by Hearst Newspapers, shows the extent of the censorship of the company’s bid: blocked out descriptions of its hiring process, the numbers of employees that could be brought on board, the contact tracing platform that will be used and visualizations of the app that shows how the company will help keep track of infected people, people they interacted with and “family members.”

Though state officials have said the company would likely hire no more than 1,000 contact tracers, MTX said in its proposal that it “can source well beyond 5,000 agents if required. The model currently proposes 4,500 as MTX believes our calls center and contact tracing platform can help reduce agent requirements.”

Those sentences were redacted from the version released to Hearst Newspapers.

DSHS spokesman Chris Van Deusen said the agency allowed MTX to decide what could be released for now from their proposal.

“The redactions were made by MTX for information claimed as proprietary,” Van Deusen said. “As is usual in records requests involving a third party, we don’t take a position on whether or not the third-party information is proprietary.”

He said the Attorney General’s Office has been asked to rule on whether to leave those sections blacked out or allow the public to see them. The Attorney General’s Office will also review the contract as required under state law for deals over $250 million.

Kim Weatherford, a business consultant in Dripping Springs, said he helped advise the company last year after it first arrived in Texas. He said its qualifications seemed extensive, but it didn’t have any experience in Texas, and was struggling to win contracts around Salesforce technology, where it specialized.

By late last year, he said, it appeared to be shedding employees.

“They realized very quickly that the Salesforce competition was pretty stiff here,” he said. “I think that’s why most of their Texas people left.”

Weatherford said the company focuses on systems integration, or linking various IT systems and services together.

Before the pandemic, the company had about 20 to 25 people working in Texas, according to three people with direct knowledge. Its contracts in other states typically ranged from a few hundred thousand dollars to between $1 million and $2 million, the people said.

Critics Urge More Oversight

Democratic state Rep. Donna Howard of Austin, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, questioned whether MTX had the experience and background to perform such a vital task.

“We need to have something that has a certain amount of assurance here that we have people who know what they’re doing,” Howard said “We don’t have time to waste here. People will die if we don’t get this right.”

In a video posted two weeks ago to LinkedIn, CEO Das Nobel said the company’s “COVID-19 solutions” were being used in 17 states. He added, “We bring speed to the table.”

“Recently, government agents asked MTX to help with call center agents,” Nobel said. “We’ll be announcing that we’ll be looking to hire 25,000 call center agents across the country. These agents can work from home whether you were recently fired or you lost your job or are in college looking for internships. You all can participate in this.”

The company has not made clear where those call center agents will be dispatched. Texas needs up to 1,000 additional tracers. MTX wrote in its bid proposal that it “is currently providing the same contact tracing and call center solution in New York City.” It said the city will be adding 15,000 call center agents, but doesn’t say it will be hiring those positions.

Its contract for $46 million in New York is with the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. None of it has been spent to date, according to a citywide database.

Van Deusen, the spokesman for the health department, said the company is not hiring contact tracers in New York, but is building out the technology for the center there and providing IT support around scheduling and workflow. Those components will be similar here, he said.

The company has been working for several state and local health agencies since the pandemic began, mostly to develop and oversee a contact tracing app.

Van Deusen said the company finished building out the Texas call center this week, and tracers are being trained.

‘Not a Brand New Thing’

Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, said the governor spoke with lawmakers again on Tuesday, fielding questions about the contract and assuring that the tracing program is voluntary and bound by health privacy laws. Though Oliverson had not seen the contract on Wednesday, he said the governor did not raise anything that he took as a concern.

“He indicated that this company had a track record, had worked here in Texas,” Oliverson said. “I got the impression that it was not a brand new thing that popped up overnight.”

He added: “The last thing you want is a lengthy RFP (request for proposal) that awarded the contract to someone that has no presence in the state and then has to develop the infrastructure from scratch.”

©2020 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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