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Capitol Offense

Hawkins Hangs On
by Published on

It hasn’t been a good month for Albert Hawkins, and yet it appears he will retain his job. In a two-week span in April, the embattled state health commissioner saw two of his agency’s most visible projects-a ballyhooed experiment with privately run call centers and a prized new computer system-exposed as costly failures, first in the pages of this magazine, then by federal officials, state lawmakers, and even his own auditors. Despite all the bad news, Hawkins appears headed for a third term in office.

In early April, the Observer reported on numerous failings in the state’s experiment with enrolling poor Texans in benefit programs through call centers run by the private company Accenture Ltd. Two weeks later, an Observer exclusive documented flaws with the new computer software that was supposed to undergird the agency’s work. Using thousands of agency documents, the Observer‘s reporting showed that Hawkins was warned repeatedly about problems with both projects before they were rolled out [see “What Hawkins Knew,” April 6, and “Trail of TIERS,” April 20]. Yet he moved forward anyway. Hawkins’ poor decision-making resulted in a waste of half a billion dollars in taxpayer money and the loss of benefits for thousands of poor families.

The day after the Observer‘s second exposé, published on the Web on April 17, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick asked the State Auditor’s Office to expedite an investigation of the two fiascos. At the same time, federal officials turned off the funding spigot for the new computer software-known as the Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System, or TIERS-until the state fixes the system’s nagging flaws. The same week, Hawkins’ own Office of Inspector General released a critical, book-length report on the Accenture and TIERS projects. The next day, a House subcommittee presented conclusions from its investigation that portray the agency in a highly unfavorable light.

For a time, it appeared this record of failure would deprive Hawkins of his job. The state Senate must confirm Hawkins’ appointment to a third term as head of the state’s Health and Human Services Commission before the end of the current legislative session, on May 28, or he will have to step down. The clock has been ticking.

His nomination sat stalled for 56 days in the Senate Committee on Nominations, where many lawmakers are none too pleased with his performance. Gov. Rick Perry’s office launched a desperate effort to save Hawkins’ job, furiously lobbying senators to approve the commissioner. Finally, on April 25, the Nominations Committee approved Hawkins on a 5-2 vote (Sens. Eliot Shapleigh, an El Paso Democrat, and Kevin Eltife, a Tyler Republican, voted no). At press time, Hawkins’ appointment was headed for a Senate floor vote; he’s expected to be confirmed.

Before his confirmation vote, Hawkins promised the Nominations Committee he would communicate better with the Legislature when he felt lawmakers’ policy decisions would lead to disaster, such as the experiment with Accenture’s call centers. “We have a $185 million boondoggle,” said Eltife, referencing the amount of money HHSC forked over to Accenture. “That will cost the state millions of dollars. Someone has to be held accountable.” Asked by Shapleigh who must take responsibility for the agency’s multiple failures, Hawkins said, “I’m accountable, sir, so I do.”

Hawkins told the Observer after the hearing that, in retrospect, he regrets rolling out the joint call center and TIERS pilot programs in early 2006. “You’re asking me a question in hindsight about something I know didn’t work,” the ever-affable Hawkins said with a laugh. But the commissioner said he still believes that, based on the information he had at the time, launching the call centers in 2006 was the right decision, especially considering the Legislature had built the assumed savings from call centers into the budget.

The push to rescue Hawkins’ job has further politicized what were already high-profile policy experiments run awry. That may help explain why HHSC leaders responded so forcefully to the report issued by its own inspector general.

The auditors listed seven major mistakes by HHSC that led to the twin failures of the Accenture and TIERS projects. Their conclusions were backed by thousands of pages of attached agency documents. One of the report’s startling conclusions was that TIERS is too complex for its own good: The auditors found that HHSC’s old, antiquated computer system performed tasks an average of 45 minutes quicker than TIERS, and with greater accuracy. HHSC had invested seven years of work and more than $400 million in software that’s inferior to what it already had.

Agency officials heatedly denied that conclusion. The agency released a five-page rebuttal to its auditors’ report-a highly unusual bureaucratic move that underscored the political sensitivities at play. The rebuttal argued, as the agency has maintained all along, that the TIERS system works well.

Asked about TIERS’ problems, Hawkins passionately defended the software. He conceded the system has suffered from numerous flaws, but said it was improving and offered the promise of a more modern, integrated system that could better handle data from the state’s numerous and complex health care programs.

The report by the House subcommittee-released a day after the auditor report-caused an even bigger political dustup. The offices of Perry and Craddick tried to soften the criticisms of Hawkins in the subcommittee report, according to several sources in both the House and Senate. A statement of conclusions by the subcommittee was scrubbed of entire paragraphs that maligned the commissioner. The word “halt” was changed to “delay” throughout the document.

Democrat Abel Herrero of Robstown, who led the subcommittee’s six-week investigation, told reporters that the subcommittee’s statement had gone through three versions, with references to Hawkins’ mistakes removed or softened. “There were different versions because the original version was thought to be too harsh and too critical of Hawkins,” he said. Herrero refused to say who had altered the report, but blamed the changes on political pressure from “higher offices.” He said he personally hadn’t received calls from the governor or speaker’s staff, but “the message got around that there’s political pressure … with respect to Commissioner Hawkins. There [are] external pressures that are being exerted to either lessen the recommendations or somehow delay the findings.”

Without an official statement, Herrero was left with little in the way of conclusions to present publicly. At a hearing of the House Human Services Committee, he read a list of consensus recommendations he and his two Republican colleagues on the subcommittee had fashioned. The recommendations include creation of a transition plan for call centers and TIERS, an independent audit of the projects, and a legislative oversight committee. Lawmakers funneled the recommendations into a bill that they later passed out of committee.

After Herrero finished the list, the real action began. Herrero made a personal statement-an impassioned plea for Hawkins to take responsibility for the fiascoes. “The buck stops somewhere,” Herrero said from the dais. “That, I think, stops with the commissioner … I wish that at some point in time [Hawkins] would assume responsibility and admit that he made mistakes. I just hope the mistakes that have been made are not repeated.”

The two Republicans on the subcommittee then made their own personal statements. Reps. Tan Parker of Flower Mound and Bryan Hughes of Mineola said HHSC had clearly messed up, but they generally praised Hawkins’ work.

Herrero said he initially recommended that Hawkins step down. He backed down from that position, but still believes Hawkins was to blame for the agency’s failures. “If Commissioner Hawkins’ position were a contract position, it would have been terminated,” Herrero told the Observer.

There has been a lot of talk at the Capitol in recent weeks about where responsibility lies for the Accenture and TIERS fiascos. Some have blamed the governor and the Legislature for asking HHSC to perform the impossible. Others have blamed private contractors like Accenture that botched their work. Increasingly, though, attention has focused on Hawkins. “He had a very hands-on role,” said Michael Garbarino, the deputy chief counsel in the HHSC’s Inspector General’s office who helped compile the auditors’ report on TIERS and Accenture. The results are undeniable. Despite warnings from the feds and his own staff, Hawkins made decisions that have wasted hundreds of millions in state money and denied benefits to thousands. It seems, however, he’ll get another chance.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.