3 On Your Side Investigates: Questionable contracts - MSNewsNow.com - Jackson, MS

3 On Your Side Investigates: Questionable contracts

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JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) -

When tornadoes hit Clinton, Jackson, and Terry this month, Hinds County's 58 new sirens worked fine.

Parts of the new sirens are under warranty. So why does the county need a siren maintenance contract with Airwave LLC, which on paper pays out more than $800,000 until the year 2013?

Supervisor Robert Graham, who spearheaded the siren project, says that contract is being re-evaluated. "It's always been the intent of the board that once the project was complete, that we're going to re-evaluate the contract," he says.

The siren project was completed in 2 1/2 years. When the contract, called "Professional Services Agreement for Early Warning Siren System", was originally drawn up, Graham says supervisors were cushioning in case the project took 7 or 8 years.

Right now, there's no promise that payments are over on the siren contract with Airwave. In fact, the copy of the contract we obtained is stamped October 4, 2010.

Several weeks ago, Airwave owner Stacey Stowers told us by phone he's the only employee of the company.

Our investigation turned up four contracts between Hinds County and Airwave. Along with siren maintenance, there's a contract for antenna maintenance for the county's six emergency communication sites. Some of the services provided in the antenna contract seem to overlap those outlined in a third contract, for communication systems maintenance, which on paper pays out $4,053,762.96 until the year 2013.

In the past five months, Airwave has gotten $393,610.65 from county taxpayers. That averages out to $942,000 a year.

It's quite a bit for Stowers, who subcontracts out some of the work.

One of those subs? Northstar Wireless, owned by Nathan Hargrove. Stowers and Hargrove share office space in Jackson, and Hargrove provides, in his own words in October 2010 Wireless Communication Commission minutes, "technical services" to Hinds County. Board President George Smith calls him a "technical specialist".

In February, Hargrove told the Board the quickest path to get the city of Byram up and running with police radios would be to buy E.F. Johnson radios. Free advice, and the board ended up buying E.F. Johnsons, the radios Hargrove sells.

As of last week the radios were still sitting in storage at the Northstar Wireless/Airwave office. When 3 On Your Side requested to get video of the radios, two Northstar employees let us in and took every radio and accessory out of every box for us to shoot.  

No word on whether the unboxed radios will affect whether or not the county can return them. Two weeks ago, the City of Byram's Board of Aldermen authorized their own purchase of Motorola radios for the police department, to be paid for out of fees on misdemeanor convictions. Byram police won't be taking the E.F. Johnsons.

Last week, 3 On Your Side informed the Board that they neglected to submit a request to the Wireless Communication Committee when they authorized the purchase of the E.F. Johnson radios. WCC Commissioner Chris Epps tells us any purchase over $100,000 requires approval, but no request had been received for the E.F. Johnson purchase. However, the WCC did receive a request, and approved, the purchase of Motorola radios.  

So the Hinds County Board of Supervisors purchased $113,000 worth of E.F. Johnson radios from their technical specialist, Nathan Hargrove of Northstar Wireless, who is a subcontractor for, and shares office space with, Stacey Stowers and Airwave, the one-employee company that holds big-money contracts with the county.

A conflict of interest? Graham wouldn't talk to us about the Byram radio purchase, saying he doesn't know enough about it. But Supervisor Smith defended Stowers and Hargrove. "Local individuals qualified to do the same thing that any other vendor can do. We contracted with them. I see nothing wrong with that. We do want to make sure what we're buying, we get," he tells us.

Stowers' performance has already been questioned. In March 2010, when the old sirens were still in use, Supervisor Phil Fisher made a motion to cancel the siren contract with Airwave because maintenance wasn't up to par. No one seconded the motion.

Supervisors may think Stowers and Hargrove are the best contractors for the money. But State Auditor Stacey Pickering might find otherwise. "We have for quite some time (been) looking into the contracts specifically with this company, and when the contracts were issued versus incorporation dates, but also what liability there may be for elected officials," Auditor Pickering told us on April 14.

We had this question for Supervisor Graham: "Is everything you've entered into, everything you've signed your name to, any agreement, has it all been above board?"

"I don't even need to answer that question for the simple reason, people know me, know what we've done, the board's done," Graham replied, adding that he welcomes any inquiry by the state auditor.

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