Digital Intrigue

Did Miami-Dade County Manager Steve Shiver deceive commissioners in an effort to steer a lucrative software contract to a friend? The friend says no. Shiver isn't talking.

"I'm not comfortable right now," said commission chairwoman Gwen Margolis, who clearly was annoyed with the way the item was being handled. Her irritation, shared by several other commissioners, has further damaged Steve Shiver's already strained relations with the county commission. "This may be the deal that forces the commission to re-examine Shiver," says one commission aide. "It's clear the manager and his staff have been lying to us, and unfortunately this isn't the first time. I'm not sure what the commission is going to do."

The liabilities also are apparent for Mayor Alex Penelas. Since appointing the former Homestead mayor in January, Penelas has witnessed the new manager stumble into a series of controversies, including Shiver's decision to hire a long-time friend with a criminal record for a top county post, his failure to take a county-mandated drug test in a timely manner, and his firing of the well-regarded director of the county's communications department. More recently the mayor has had to sidestep inquiries regarding Shiver's role in the financial collapse of the City of Homestead.

Shiver's role in the Oracle contract, however, has the potential to create a far bigger problem for Penelas. It could resurrect concerns about the mayor's close ties to a handful of powerful lobbyists and allow his critics to credibly ask: Did Penelas hire Shiver so the manager could steer deals to the mayor's friends?

Hugo Benitez reacted angrily when he discovered the Oracle item on the commission agenda
Hugo Benitez reacted angrily when he discovered the Oracle item on the commission agenda
PeopleSoft partner Esteban Neely didn't think he'd need a lobbyist; now he does
PeopleSoft partner Esteban Neely didn't think he'd need a lobbyist; now he does


Read related New Times Steve Shiver stories

From an accounting standpoint, Miami-Dade County government has always been a mess. Each of the county's departments -- and there are more than 40 -- uses its own computer software to manage its finances. As a result there has never been a uniform way for the departments to share information.

Last year Merrett Stierheim, who was then county manager, decided it was critical to correct this problem. He wanted his staff to find an accounting-software system that could be used by all county departments. As the year came to a close and Stierheim was preparing to step down, he gave Randy Witt the task of determining which software would best accomplish the goal of integrated accounting.

A county employee for less than two years, Witt is a retired brigadier general with the U.S. Air Force. He was picked by Stierheim to become Miami-Dade County's first chief information officer (CIO), a senior position reporting directly to the manager.

Witt determined that the new accounting software, regardless of which system was selected, should initially be installed in two of the largest county departments: aviation and water and sewer. If it worked well there, its use could be expanded to the rest of the county bureaucracy. The first task, though, was to identify the appropriate software. Witt pulled together roughly a dozen representatives from various departments to study the issue. He included technical experts as well as the people who would actually be using the system.

From the outset Witt knew Oracle wanted the contract. The second-largest computer-software company in the world behind Microsoft, Oracle specializes in financial and accounting programs. Although it has been providing an array of services to Miami-Dade County for years, the company has its detractors. For example, some county departments now using Oracle complain that the firm isn't sufficiently responsive in fixing problems or providing training.

Witt and the members of his review committee decided to look beyond Oracle to other software companies and their products. One of the firms the committee heard good things about was PeopleSoft, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Though not as large as Oracle, PeopleSoft was a serious player, as the committee knew. It boasts more than 8000 employees and 4500 customers worldwide. A publicly traded firm, PeopleSoft has been in operation since 1987 and last year recorded $1.7 billion in revenues.

In January, after eliminating other companies, the review committee asked PeopleSoft and Oracle to demonstrate their products. Over the course of several months, committee members met with representatives from both firms. PeopleSoft sent Michael Youngwirth, a regional sales manager who flew in from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Also appearing on behalf of PeopleSoft was Esteban Neely, president of eVerge Group, a consulting firm that provides training and technical assistance for PeopleSoft products. "It was a tremendous opportunity," recalls Neely. "We were very excited about presenting our product to the county."

Oracle, of course, deployed its own team, but the company didn't rely solely on salespeople. According to members of the review committee, Oracle's representatives repeatedly mentioned the name of their Miami lobbyist, Rodney Barreto. "They kept finding ways to work it into the conversation," recalls one expert who sat on the committee. "I thought it was idiotic. They were dealing with technical people on the committee. None of us cared about politics."

Neely and Youngwirth first heard Barreto's name from committee members, who warned them they could be in trouble. "We were hearing that Oracle had this big lobbyist," remembers Neely. "Committee members were saying that Oracle had hired this person, Rodney Barreto. I didn't really worry about it. Maybe I was naive, but I didn't think lobbyists were necessary. I've never had to work with them in the past whenever I made presentations to other groups around the country. Besides, the committee really seemed to like our product."

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