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Democrats rail against Crist over outsourcing

In private hands, state employee records went overseas. Critics say the attorney general should speak up about it.

By STEVE BOUSQUET and JONI JAMES
Published March 22, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - Attorney General Charlie Crist has spent years cultivating an image as a vigorous defender of consumers, especially on identity theft.

But Democrats say the Republican candidate for governor has been conspicuously quiet about whether state employees' privacy was compromised when their personnel records were shipped to India by a subcontractor on Gov. Jeb Bush's $350-million "People First" venture.

The Florida Democratic Party offered one possible explanation Tuesday: The company holding the $350-million contract, Convergys Corp., has been a Republican Party donor, and a company lobbyist, Brian Ballard, is an adviser to Crist's campaign.

"Florida voters expect more from their attorney general, especially when he's asking them for a promotion," the Democrats said in their harshest criticism of Crist to date. "Instead, Charlie Crist ducked and ran from the issue."

Convergys officials have said they were misled two years ago when a subcontractor, GDXdata Inc. of Denver, hired subcontractors and sent work offshore, mainly to India, in violation of its deal with Convergys. Convergys officials also deny accusations they did not tell the state in a timely manner about the problem. "People First" is a private program to modernize the management of state employees' personnel records.

"We recognize that there is a disagreement with the state as to whether Convergys properly notified the state as information became available," Convergys said in a statement on Tuesday. "We believe we did, and continue to endeavor to do so."

Convergys severed ties with GDXdata in August 2005.

Tom Lewis, the state official whose agency oversees the Convergys contract, told legislators last week that personnel files of up to 108,000 state workers may have been "indexed," or categorized, overseas.

The state sent an e-mail to all affected employees last week, urging them to take "every possible precaution" to guard against identity theft, even though no evidence of it has yet been found.

"We have absolutely no evidence whatsoever that any information has been compromised," Lewis said Tuesday.

Lewis has said the agency's investigation had found "compelling evidence" that Convergys may have known of the offshoring as early as August 2005. As a result, the Department of Management Services was seeking $5-million from the company in compensation and to hire an independent auditor to ascertain if there was any identity theft.

Crist said his chief of staff, Clay Roberts, is monitoring the case. Roberts confirmed that he has received periodic reports from the state agency in charge of overseeing Convergys' contract.

"We are not conducting an independent investigation," Roberts said.

Crist dismissed the criticism as election year politics, and he said it was not clear, as Democrats claimed, that any employee's privacy was violated.

"I am not confident that there's been any breach at this point, but we're certainly open-minded to that," Crist said, "and if there is, we'll take care of it to the extent that we have the authority to do so."

Records show since 2002, when Crist was elected attorney general, Convergys has donated $37,000 to the Republican Party of Florida.

Ballard said he has never spoken to Crist about his work for Convergys, and he noted he has supported Democratic state Sens. Walter "Skip" Campbell and Les Miller, who helped launch the latest attack on the Republicans' privatization efforts.

Bush, whose support for outsourcing has alienated labor unions for state workers and some legislators in his own party, registered his displeasure Tuesday.

"I'm really disappointed that Convergys didn't tell us or didn't know that one of its subcontractors was using employees from India, I believe, and a Caribbean Island as well," Bush told reporters. (The other country was Barbados.)

The partisanship was evident in the Democrats' choice of spokesmen to criticize Crist and Bush for outsourcing problems: Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, is running for attorney general, and Miller, D-Tampa, is running for Congress.

"This is one privatization experiment that has blown up too many times," Miller said.

Steve Bousquet is at 850 224-7263 or bousquet@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 22, 2006, 01:58:24]


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