Legislative auditor seeks details on $24M router buy
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Legislative Auditor wants to know who signed off on the state's decision to buy $24 million in Internet routers with federal stimulus funds and how the purchase benefited taxpayers.
Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred has given Homeland Security director Jimmy Gianato until Dec. 21 to answer 16 questions and nine informational requests about the state's use of a $126.3-million federal stimulus grant designed to expand high-speed Internet in West Virginia.
Allred's office is investigating the router purchase. Gianato administers the broadband project.
"It is clear based on conversations with members [of the Legislature] that an overview of the grant needs to be provided," Allred said.
Members of a joint House-Senate technology committee planned to ask Gianato the questions at an interim meeting Tuesday. But Gianato was in Sissonville with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to update the media on the Sissonville natural gas pipeline explosion.
Sen. Mike Green, who heads the technology committee, said state lawmakers would summon Gianato to the group's next meeting in early January.
"We'll have a full meeting to answer those questions," said Green, D-Raleigh.
In 2010, the state used the stimulus funds to purchase more than 1,000 Cisco routers for "community anchor institutions" - schools, libraries, State Police detachments, health clinics, 911 centers, county courthouses, state agencies and other public facilities. The routers cost $22,600 each.
In a letter released Tuesday, the Legislative Auditor's office has asked Gianato to explain how the routers were purchased, and when and where they were delivered.
The two-page letter also asks Gianato to reveal who advised state officials to purchase the routers, why they were purchased all at one time, and who suggested buying only one size of router.
"How come representatives of WVNET [the state's Internet services agency] were not consulted?" the letter says. "How come the Cisco 3945 routers were not right-sized for the areas they were to be installed? Who made the suggestion to buy one size, and who made the decision?"
The Gazette has reported that the routers were designed to serve hundreds of users or computer connections, but the state has installed many of the devices in libraries and other facilities with only a handful of computer terminals.
Some facility administrators have said they never requested the routers. Others have complained that they can't use the routers.
West Virginia State Police, for instance, can't use 70 routers assigned to detachments because the devices aren't compatible with the agency's voicemail system.
Also, more than 160 libraries have declined to hook up the routers to a new high-speed fiber-optic network because the state Library Commission can't afford to pay for faster Internet service.
An additional 175 routers remain boxed up in storage - more than two years after they were purchased.
At Tuesday's meeting, state lawmakers also questioned whether the state would finish the broadband expansion project by the federal government's Jan. 31 deadline. The state has to complete the project by then, or risk losing any unspent funds.
"I'm concerned the deadline keeps cropping up on us," said Sen. Bob Williams, D-Taylor.
Mike Todorovich, who serves on the state's grant implementation team, said state officials plan to ask the federal government to extend the deadline because of delays and damage caused by superstorm Sandy in late October.
Frontier Communications, which is building the high-speed fiber, reported $500,000 in storm damage to the broadband network.
Todorovich expects the $126.3 million project to be completed sometime this spring.
Williams also asked why the state was spending $50 million -- $20 million more than budgeted -- of the stimulus grant to upgrade a wireless tower network used for emergency communications.
"Are we significantly over budget on that area?" Williams said.
Todorovich said he would bring information about the tower project to the January legislative meeting.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.