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Broadband consultant's report a secret

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A state agency paid a Virginia-based company an estimated $118,000 to review West Virginia's use of $126.3 million in federal stimulus funds to expand high-speed Internet, but Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's administration won't release the consultant's findings to the public.

The reason: At least one of the consultant's documents might be "embarrassing to some people," according to Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette.

"The documents may be embarrassing to some people . . .  . Embarrassing because it was someone's opinion," Burdette said. "It was a specific document, citing specific companies, and making very specific suggestions to me."

Burdette disclosed the existence of the consultant's document -- titled Draft Discussion Points -- in response to a Freedom of Information request filed by The Charleston Gazette. However, he declined to release the report to the newspaper, saying it was an "internal memorandum" that could be withheld under state law.

"It was part of a discussion. It did not result in an end product," Burdette said. "There's some criticism of the players in there that I don't accept."

The state of West Virginia has worked with a number of companies on the broadband expansion project. Frontier Communications has received the bulk of the stimulus funds to build fiber cable to public facilities across the state. Other companies paid through the project include Verizon and Cisco.

Burdette declined to say which "players" the consultant's five-page report could potentially embarrass. However, he said the document doesn't point fingers at Tomblin's office.

"There's not a word in there about the actions of the administration," Burdette said. "It's not about exposing anything we did."

Last year, the Commerce Department hired Vienna, Va.-based ICF International to review the state's broadband projects and programs, including a $126.3 million project that's come under scrutiny by state and federal audits.

In August, ICF delivered a 130-page document titled "Assessment Report of Selected Broadband Projects in the State of West Virginia." The report, which cost the state about $10,000, excluded the state's stimulus-funded $126.3 million project -- by far West Virginia's largest broadband project.

Burdette said the stimulus project was left out because the "selected broadband projects" report was prepared for the Commerce Department. Most documents about the $126.3 million project were sent to the governor's office, he said.

"I put all of the [federal broadband] project-related work back to the governor's office," he said. "The governor's office was managing the program."

Burdette said he asked ICF to provide him with information about the broadband project before a meeting last spring.

"I had the memo drafted, but I didn't use it," Burdette said. "It was assumptions and making recommendations. At the end of the day, I didn't agree with their assessment."

West Virginia is spending $126.3 million in stimulus funds to increase Internet speeds at more than 1,000 "community anchor institutions" -- schools, libraries, health centers, county courthouses, jails, 911 centers, planning agencies and other public facilities.

About 630 sites are getting new fiber-optic connections. All 1,100 locations are receiving high-capacity routers.

A recent West Virginia Legislative Audit report found that the state wasted at least $7.9 million -- and up to $15 million -- on the $24 million router purchase. Auditors also are examining the use of the stimulus funds to build a $40 million fiber network.

House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said the Tomblin administration should release all documents that show how the state is spending the federal stimulus funds. The federal government requires broadband grant recipients to be "open and transparent" about their use of the stimulus funds.

"When you have a project, and you're talking about millions of dollars in spending, and there are questions about whether those funds were efficiently spent, the public has a right to know about it," said Armstead, who has introduced a bill that would eliminate the Freedom of Information Act exemption that Burdette cited to keep secret ICF's report.

Armstead also noted that Burdette wouldn't release a memo paid for with Commerce Department funds.

"It's insulting to tell the public they have to pay for something and they can't see it," Armstead said. "The public paid for that report."

Although Burdette disagreed with ICF's assessment of the $126.3 million project, his department continued to pay the Virginia consulting firm for advice and reports on other broadband-related projects. ICF has received $320,000 under its contract, according to invoices.

Burdette said he found only one document about the $126.3 million project, but ICF was paid at least $118,000 for its analysis -- about $38,000 more than the state initially budgeted for the task, invoices show. The consultants presumably had numerous discussions and meetings with state officials.

Since May, the Gazette has published a series of reports raising questions about the state's use of the $126.3 million in stimulus funds.

Burdette said he met with Tomblin's chief counsel, Peter Markham, before deciding not to make ICF's critical comments public. Burdette acknowledged that the exemption doesn't require him to withhold the ICF memo. In other words, he could release the document, even though he believes state law allows him to keep it confidential.

Asked why he wouldn't do so, Burdette responded with a laugh, "Because you're dangerous."

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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