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Louisiana Voting Vendor Chosen Amid Bid-Rigging Complaint



 

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's pick to replace thousands of decade-old voting machines is the company that was the subject of bid-rigging complaints involving the secretary of state's office.

The state's procurement office sent letters Thursday announcing Colorado-based Dominion Voting Systems is the winning bidder based on "price and other evaluation factors." Negotiations are set to begin for a contract now estimated to be worth up to $95 million.

Louisiana slowed work to replace the machines and overhauled the team evaluating vendor proposals, after competitor Election Systems and Software raised allegations the secretary of state's office manipulated the selection process to award the deal to Dominion.

After the complaint was filed, evaluation standards were revised. The procurement office overseeing the contractor selection scrapped the original evaluation committee and removed Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin from it, according to documents reviewed by The Associated Press.

Ardoin said he was involved in revamping the evaluation team and addressing the complaint. However, Jacques Berry, a spokesman for the state procurement office, said the reworking of the evaluation committee was the office director's "decision unilaterally."

Ardoin described the selection process as "fair and equitable for all bidders."

"We look forward to negotiating a final agreement with Dominion in the near future," he said in a statement Thursday.

Election Systems and Software didn't say whether the changes addressed all of its concerns. A company attorney cited confidentiality around the ongoing evaluation of proposals. Dominion wouldn't comment about its winning bid, directing questions to Ardoin's office.

Competition among companies to replace and service voting machines is fierce. The contracts are lucrative, only a handful of vendors do the work and states hang onto their machines for decades.

Louisiana last purchased voting equipment in 2005. The secretary of state's office wants to replace existing bulky machines with smaller, touch-screen-style equipment, improved technology and a paper trail. Nearly 10,000 machines are slated to be replaced by 2020.

Three companies bid for the work: Dominion Voting Systems, Hart InterCivic and Election Systems and Software.

Election Systems and Software protested the selection process, objecting to two sets of voting system standards released after the request for proposals from bidders. The standards are highly technical specifications for things such as machine security, ballot counting and voting transmission that contractors must meet.

Election Systems and Software said the secretary of state's office released add-on standards weeks later than allowed. The company said one set of standards was so specific that only Dominion Voting Systems would qualify.

The standards were "clearly and blatantly slanted to accommodate a single vendor's existing voting system," Thomas Clark, a lawyer representing Election Systems and Software, wrote in a protest letter to the Office of State Procurement.

Paula Tregre, director of the procurement office, immediately stalled the evaluation of contract proposals after receiving the complaint. Ardoin withdrew both sets of contested standards two days after the complaint was filed, according to letters exchanged by the officials.

In an interview, Ardoin said one set of standards was signed by former Secretary of State Tom Schedler as he was resigning amid sexual harassment allegations. Ardoin, who was Schedler's top assistant, took over after Schedler left and said he was unaware Schedler had issued the add-on standards.

"When I was able to figure out what had occurred, I very quickly decided we're not going to be able to abide by this," said Ardoin, who is running on the November ballot to remain secretary of state.

Schedler didn't return a call for comment.

The other standards were "inadvertently uploaded," Ardoin said. Those were issued for Dominion Voting Systems, for its current work servicing Louisiana's voting machines and weren't meant to be required for the new contractor, Ardoin said.

After Ardoin withdrew the contested standards, Tregre directed Ardoin to "remove himself from participating" in the evaluation of voting machine proposals; notified companies the add-on standards won't be used to evaluate bids; and ordered a new evaluation committee.

Ardoin was named to the evaluation committee when he was Schedler's chief deputy. He said he asked to be removed because it wasn't appropriate for the secretary of state to help choose the contractor and then later negotiate final contract terms with the winning bidder.

"We developed this solution together," he said.

Berry described events differently, saying Tregre "made the decision independent of anything he may or may not have asked. To my knowledge, he didn't push back on it."

- by Melinda Deslatte, AP reporter

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