South Florida Sun Sentinel | by Scott Travis | March 21, 2021
A statewide grand jury is reviewing the Broward County School District’s huge spending on Lenovo computers, many of which were bought through questionable bidding practices amid numerous complaints about their quality.
The district has paid more than $200 million for Lenovo devices and accessories since 2013. They’re in the homes of more than 100,000 students who have used them for e-learning during the pandemic.
For years, teachers, students and School Board members dubbed these computers “Le No No’s,” saying they would crash, keys would fall off and touchpads would stop working.
One of the most vocal advocates for Lenovo was Tony Hunter, the district’s former chief information officer, who persuaded a wary School Board to give Lenovo an exclusive $81 million contract in 2016.
Hunter was arrested in January on bid rigging and bribery charges related to a different technology contract. The arrest was part of a statewide grand jury investigation of school safety and corruption. Hunter has pleaded not guilty and denied any wrongdoing.
“He did absolutely nothing improper at all, and the facts are going to support that,” his attorney, Bruce Zimet, said, declining to elaborate.
Hunter hasn’t been charged with any impropriety related to Lenovo, but the grand jury has been reviewing the purchases. Lenovo bid documents, contracts, purchase orders and receipts are included in an evidence list prosecutors for the grand jury case turned over to Hunter’s defense attorney last month.
The school district has used several different contracts to buy Lenovo computers over the years: a $990,000 contract in 2013; two Broward College piggyback contracts in 2014 totaling $69 million; a 2016 contract for $81 million; and a 2019 contract for $55 million.
Prosecutors for the grand jury started investigating Broward Schools’ technology contracts after the South Florida Sun Sentinel questioned the purchase of $17 million for Recordex interactive flat-panel TV’s without competitive bids from a vendor with close ties to Hunter.
The Recordex devices, which serve as a projector and giant tablet, were bought for Broward classrooms and libraries starting in 2015.
The grand jury is expected to conclude its work by April 17.
A report from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the lead investigative agency in Hunter’s criminal case, focuses on Recordex. But investigators also asked several witnesses about Lenovo, and one vendor accused Hunter of steering business to the company, according to an investigative report obtained by the Sun Sentinel.
Michael Hendrix, a Dell administrator based in Broward County, told investigators in sworn testimony in December that he believed the district’s initial bid specifications in 2014 “were so streamlined, only Lenovo would qualify,” according to the report.
“Hendrix understood it that Hunter was the drive behind bringing in both Recordex and Lenovo,” the report states.
A Lenovo spokesperson couldn’t be reached for comment, despite attempts Thursday and Friday.
An $81 million Lenovo contract from 2016 — the largest contract during Hunter’s tenure — is the subject of a recent audit the school district commissioned after problems were revealed with Recordex. The audit, conducted by HCT Accountants in Hollywood, found at least one major irregularity.
The district’s purchasing department failed to time-stamp bids by Lenovo and another company that won a smaller contract for tablets, making it difficult to confirm that the bids came in on time. There were time stamps for two losing bids, CDW-G, which was disqualified because the bid was late, and Dell, which turned in its bid before the deadline.
The district’s Audit Committee discussed this finding at a March 11 meeting.
Procurement director Mary Coker, who wasn’t with the district at the time, told the Audit Committee that sign-in sheets show that the winning bidders were present when the bids were opened and no one issued a bid protest. She said that suggests bids were turned in on time. But Audit Committee members found the omissions alarming.
“This was $81 million. Every piece of paper should have been perfectly maintained,” Audit Committee member Mary Fertig said. “This is a pretty major finding, and it calls into question the bid process.”
It wasn’t the first time questions had been raised about how Lenovos were purchased.
In 2013, Dell had the exclusive laptop and desktop contract with the school district. When Hunter arrived that year, he put the contract out to bid, a year before Dell’s contract expired. Hunter told Dell officials their products had performance issues, something the company disputed, Hendrix told investigators.
The district used a selection committee to choose a computer vendor for the next few years, and Dell alleged the specifications were written for Lenovo, asking for outdated technology used only by Lenovo, according to Dell’s bid protest in 2014.
The protest says one of Hunter’s employees at the time, Becky Schmaus, scored Dell “conspicuously lower” than all other members of the committee.
“Ms. Schmaus was advised by the … chief information officer, Tony Hunter, that he wanted the district to switch to all Lenovo products as part of his strategic vision for the district,” the 2014 protest alleges.
Schmaus, who has since retired, denied the allegation when reached this week.
“I didn’t do it. I always voted for the product I thought was best,” she said. “I never played games with that.”
She said many of the other evaluators “may not have even read the whole [proposal]. I scrutinized and read every word.”
Dell dropped the protest a month later, before a judge could rule on the merits.
“We retracted our protest after the district informed us they would be canceling the [request for proposals] and issuing another one,” a Dell spokesperson told the Sun Sentinel in an email, declining to comment further.
Even though Lenovo wasn’t awarded that contract, the district still spent millions on its computers that year. The School Board agreed to piggyback with a Broward College Lenovo contract in January 2014, a legal practice that doesn’t require competitive bids.
But the district tried to change the terms, which Lenovo never agreed to. The district still bought $23 million in computers without a contract in place until November 2014, when an alarmed School Board ordered the practice to stop.
Superintendent Robert Runcie said at the time that the district “dropped the ball.”
In December 2014, the School Board approved a short-term contract with Lenovo to “memorialize” the purchases already made and to allow schools to buy computers until the district could seek bids again.
That happened with the 2016 bid Lenovo won. At the time, Runcie told the School Board Lenovo was a great value.
“There’s nothing wrong with the devices,” he said.
Several School Board members disagreed.
By the time this contract was awarded, the district had spent $70 million on Lenovo devices, and the feedback from teachers and students was dismal. At a February 2016 meeting, School Board members rattled off myriad complaints they’d heard. The screens were too small. Students could have only one screen open at a time. The devices had insufficient memory. Many touchpads failed to work, prompting the district to buy plug-in mice.
The contract was awarded on price only, with Lenovo listed as the lowest bidder.
“I hear such disappointment with this product,” then-board member Robin Bartleman said at the time. “Most people are very unhappy. I know we did the lowest bidder, but sometimes you get what you pay for.”
Some board members wanted the contract split between two companies. Hunter rejected it, saying the district must standardize its technology for easier repair and replacement. He said overall, users were happy with the products, based on surveys.
“When you have an installation of this size, with 131,000 devices, there’s no question there are going to be some challenges along the way,” Hunter said.
School board members approved the contract 5-4.
Hunter left in 2019. That year, new Chief Information Officer Phil Dunn acknowledged problems with Lenovo products. He said the models previously bought by the district were too low-end to serve the district well.
“What happened with those computers is we were deploying a $200 device, expecting it to last five yeas, and there’s no data to support that strategy would work,” he told an advisory committee in 2019.
When the district sought bids for a computer refresh program in 2019, the district upgraded its specifications to ensure the computers would be more rugged. Three companies bid, and once again Lenovo won, offering the lowest price at just under $55 million.
The newer Lenovos, many of which have been distributed to students during the pandemic, have been of higher quality and complaints have been few, district officials say.
Rocco Diaz, a senior at Fort Lauderdale High who serves as one of the student representatives on the School Board, said he was issued one of the newer Lenovo computers in January but eventually decided to use his own device instead.
“It wasn’t bad. I didn’t really expect much from the Lenovo,” Diaz said. “I think it’s nice that the School Board is even making an effort to get kids free computers.”