Perception or problem?

March 07, 2007

Isis Technology Consulting's participation in a $110 million state contract was short-lived. But state officials are reviewing how the company, founded quickly last year by a Republican political consultant and three other women, was fast-tracked to receive certification as a qualified minority business. The perception of favoritism can be as damaging as a finding of favored treatment.

And the circumstances surrounding Isis' interest in the information technology contract, as reported by The Sun's Lynn Anderson, looked like a sweet deal. Carol L. Hirschburg, GOP strategist and ally of the Ehrlich administration, teams up with a vice president of a large Baltimore-based technology company to form their own women-owned firm. The primary investor is the psychiatrist wife of the founder of Syscom. Isis' third officer is the wife of another Syscom vice president. The fledgling company is tapped by another well-known Republican, former Howard County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, to be a minority subcontractor for his firm, ACS State and Local Solutions, in their bid for the $110 million contract from the state Department of Human Resources.

Isis needed to be state-certified as a Minority Business Enterprise to team up with ACS, and Ms. Hirschburg asked for the application to be fast-tracked to meet the bid deadline. The firm got its certification in 30 days, instead of the usual 90-120 days.

Fast-tracking is part of the state MBE certification process; that alone wouldn't necessarily indicate that Ms. Hirschburg and her company had received preferential treatment. The practice was begun in years past to facilitate minority- and women-owned businesses' involvement in big state contracts. Since 2001, when the state began keeping records, the MBE certification agency has accelerated the review of 450 applications - about 60 a year on average for an office that reviews 700-800 applications yearly.

As for Isis, it didn't get much for its efforts. Ms. Hirschburg says she pulled out of the contract with ACS when it reneged on its commitment to pay her firm 11 percent of the contract price.

State Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari has ordered an audit of MBE applications that were fast-tracked, including Isis', and the process so that criteria for fast-tracking can be developed. The review also should determine whether the fast-tracking was reserved for special interests or well-connected ones.

The integrity of the process must be above reproach if the program's worthy goals to encourage and develop minority businesses are to be met.

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