“It was such a mess,” Elizabeth Bency says. She sits at the conference table of the Domenici Law Firm—the namesake belongs to Pete Domenici Jr., the former US senator’s son and failed 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate—which overlooks downtown Albuquerque in mid-afternoon. Behind her, the banister below the window is flanked with reflective awards given to Pete Domenici Sr. Across from her, Charles Lakins, a lawyer on the case, sits. Bency, donning a pinstripe pantsuit and magenta shirt, tells the story in a hushed tone that bears almost maternal concern.
In its lawsuit against the DOT, Bency & Associates alleges that, after a spat between DOT brass and Elizabeth Bency, DOT handed work over to another contractor and limited what Bency could do in the scope of the contract. Specifically, the suit alleges that Traffic Safety Bureau Director Michael Sandoval and TSB Staff Manager Sandra Martinez “threatened” Bency with the loss of the contract if she fired an employee she no longer wanted on the payroll.
Neither Sandoval nor Martinez would comment for this story.
Before the pilot project for TraCS, Bency had a price agreement with the state, under which, for projects of less than $200,000, the company had a fixed rate and was considered a go-to IT firm. In other words, if the state needed an IT project, Bency was one of a small handful of IT firms allowed to bid for the job.
The price agreement allowed the company, over the past nine years, to rack up 162 projects for the state at numerous agencies. It also allowed Bency to receive the contract for the pilot program, since it cost less than $200,000.
After it received the contract to take the state driving records project statewide, Bency commenced with the work. At Elizabeth Bency’s side was an employee she believed could help make the project a reality. Instead, she says, he became the sticking point between her company and the state.
In 2004, as she prepared to launch work on the TraCS pilot project, Elizabeth Bency was searching for a new employee to expand her growing business in the public sector. She called Michael Archibeque to look for recommendations.
At the time, Archibeque worked in the courts’ Judicial Information Division, designing a DWI records system that had, the year prior, won a best practices prize from the Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals. He knew government. According to Bency, Archibeque was interested in her open position.
“We had many conversations, and he said, ‘I can open up this state, that state,’ all these promises of what he would do,” she says.
Bency was sold. She hired Archibeque as vice president of government relations. According to one DOT employee, Archibeque “was probably one of the architects for the whole vision of [STRS].” In his time at the company, Archibeque frequently lead committee meetings for the design and implementation of the program.
But Bency doesn’t buy that. She says now that Archibeque didn’t pull his own weight, and that the promises of expansion into new states never came. She speaks poorly of his work, saying that it “wasn’t the quality of Bency.”
By the time the STRS project started in 2008, Bency says she was ready to fire Archibeque, and approached Sandoval.
“I was told, ‘We are doing business with you because of Mike Archibeque.’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute. I was doing business with you before I hired the guy.’ And I said, ‘Are you saying that, if I let him go, you’re going to end and cease all my work right now?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’”
Or, in the words of the lawsuit:
“When Plaintiff considered terminating its employee Michael Archibeque, Michael Sandoval and Sandra Martinez threatened Plaintiff with the loss of current business.”
Archibeque, reached on his cell phone, says, “I’m probably very key and instrumental [in the case], and I could tell you a lot, but I probably shouldn’t. I haven’t really been given the opportunity to tell my side of the story.” He declined to comment further.
Eventually, in March 2009, Archibeque was let go. And, in a sense, so was Bency: Elizabeth Bency says the DOT stopped giving her work orders mid-phase. Bency says she continued to get calls from agencies around the state, but that “at some point, I have to say, the work ceases.”
For Archibeque, the work didn’t cease: Shortly after he was laid off by Bency, he started his own firm, MA Strategies, in Algodones.
Bency claims Sandoval, even when Bency & Associates’ contract was still valid, gave a contract for STRS work to MA Strategies, without an RFP.
In a motion for a deposition, Domenici requests the DOT provide any contracts entered into between MA Strategies and the DOT. The DOT filed a counter motion to deny the deposition, and no one from the department has yet been deposed.
But records from the DOT obtained by SFR show that MA Strategies received a $250,000 contract in October 2009 for work on the Commercial Motor Vehicle Project, a project intended to enhance the reporting of car crashes throughout the state (Bency also bid on the contract). There were no contracts between MA Strategies and the DOT for the system Bency worked on, according to the records reviewed.
But the Commercial Motor Vehicle Project was encompassed by the STRS project. The latter lays out the creation of a system to handle “all” electronic traffic data; the former is simply a part of the project. Yet while the plan for the STRS is laid out in detail on the Traffic Safety Bureau’s website—with plans and revised plans and detailed schematics—the Commercial Motor Vehicle Project isn’t even online. Even Ashmore, the IT chief for the DOT, says, “The RFP went out and was awarded [to Archibeque] before we even heard about it.”
Archibeque has until September 2013 to finish the job.