Louisiana is voiding a multimillion-dollar contract award to replace thousands of voting machines after a key official in Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration found flaws in the vendor selection.
Interim Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin's office will have to redo the bid process for the lucrative work if the decision by Louisiana's chief procurement officer Paula Tregre stands. "I hereby determine that it is in the best interest of the state to rescind the award made to Dominion Voting Systems," Tregre said in a 17-page decision released Wednesday night.
The decision comes at an unfortunate time for Ardoin, a Republican in office since May who is running in a November special election to remain in the job. Running on his experience, Ardoin has defended the bid evaluators' pick of Dominion and suggested criticism was "baloney" while opponents have panned his handling of the voting machine replacement.
One opponent, Rick Edmonds, for instance, told The Advocate Thursday that the decision underscores the argument he has been making throughout the campaign. "If this is an example of what his experience brings, then we can do without it," the Baton Rouge Republican state representative said. "We need to remove the taint of scandal from this office."
Democratic candidate Renee Fontenot Free, who was the top deputy in the Secretary of State's office in 2005 when the current machines were purchased, picked up on the same theme.
“When I served as First Assistant Secretary of State from 2004 to 2008, I was in charge of the procurement of the voting machines we still use today ... and I did it without a hint of scandal," she said in a prepared statement. “He has tried to force a bad bid process through to benefit one vendor. It’s unacceptable!”
Noting that Ardoin had been top aide to Tom Schedler, who resigned in may after being sued for sexually harassing an employee, Free ticked off a litany of complaints the eight opponents have against the interim. “Mr. Ardoin served alongside the former Secretary who had to resign in disgrace just four months ago. Mr. Ardoin wasted no time in spending the taxpayers’ money slapping his name and picture on everything that didn’t move, and most recently wasted $24,000 of taxpayer money on an unnecessary letter to a confidential list of voters that reeked of politics, as usual," Free said.
On Thursday morning, Ardoin blamed the Democratic governor for tossing the contract award, accusing Edwards of siding with a losing bidder because the company's lobbyist is an Edwards supporter.
"This decision by Gov. Edwards' administration is an embarrassment and reeks of old-school Louisiana politics. The governor sided with his political buddies over election security. It's executive overreach and why the secretary of state is independently elected," Ardoin said in a statement.
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, a top Edwards aide who oversees the Office of State Procurement, called Ardoin's claims "absurd." He said Tregre made her decision independent of him or the governor. Dardenne said he didn't even know about Tregre's decision before the Edwards administration was contacted by The Associated Press.
"It's Kyle choosing to inject politics into a process that is otherwise devoid of politics. That is a gross mischaracterization," Dardenne said Thursday. "There was nothing done differently in this process from any other procurement."
Tregre sided with losing vendor Election Systems and Software, known as ES&S, which filed a protest of the contract award in August. She found that some, though not all, of the company's complaints were valid. Particularly, she said the secretary of state's office didn't properly post the voting system standards required of a contractor.
"Without these certification standards, no adequate evaluation of the proposed voting systems could be made," Tregre wrote.
Dominion intends to appeal the decision. Dardenne will decide the outcome of the appeal.
"We will take immediate steps to challenge the bid award's improper cancellation," Dominion spokeswoman Kay Stimson said in a statement. "Given the facts, our voting system remains the best technology at the best price for the voters of Louisiana."
The secretary of state's office solicited bids to replace 10,000 voting machines, swapping out equipment bought in 2005 with smaller devices, improved technology and a paper record of votes.
Ardoin became secretary of state when his boss Tom Schedler resigned amid sexual harassment allegations. The bid process started when Schedler was in charge and continued when Ardoin moved into the top job.
Three companies bid for the contract. Dominion estimated the work would cost up to $95 million.
After Dominion was selected by a bid evaluation team, ES&S protested, calling the selection work "fundamentally flawed."
"We look forward to participating in a fair procurement that will allow the voters of Louisiana to cast their ballots on a modern and secure voting system," said Tom Clark, a contract lawyer representing ES&S.
ES&S accused the secretary of state's office of bid-rigging by issuing voting system standards only Dominion could meet. Ardoin said those standards shouldn't have been posted, were withdrawn and weren't used to evaluate bidders.
But Tregre said problems with the standards began before that posting. The request for vendor proposals said the Secretary of State's office would post certification standards on its website when the bid solicitation was issued. That didn't happen, Tregre said, and the later posted standards were withdrawn.
Without the standards, the bid solicitation "was inherently defective," she wrote.
Tregre also agreed with a protest claim that Dominion's proposal involved equipment not properly certified by federal authorities.
Mark Ballard of The Advocate Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.