The Schemer

Tonya Brenneman scored millions to design a computer system for the Dallas County jail—a system that failed so miserably that dangerous criminals went free. She swears she didn’t get the job by sleeping with a county official.

Tonya Brenneman is keeping her head down these days. The Dallas Morning News has been calling, and just about every television station in town has paid her office a visit, but the former TCU fashion-merchandising instructor isn’t coming out of her bunker for anybody. And for good reason. She’s the epicenter of a multimillion-dollar disaster of her own creation.

In 2003, Dallas County decided it was time to revamp the system it used to keep track of the prisoners in its jails. It would be a monumental task. Eighty thousand prisoners pass through the county jail every year. The old system stored their data—addresses, arrest records, disposition of their cases—in an antique mainframe computer built in 1965. But Brenneman believed she could handle the job. The day after the county issued its formal request for proposal on the jail system, she incorporated her own tiny IT consulting company called InfoIntegration. Two months later, with just her and one other person on the company’s payroll—neither of whom were computer programmers—Brenneman won the contract, beating out two older, more experienced firms. InfoIntegration was in business.

That’s when the county’s problems began. Allegations surfaced that the bid process had been rigged, work deadlines went unmet, and cost overruns multiplied. Finally, when Brenneman’s system went live, in January 2005, it wreaked havoc on the Lew Sterrett Justice Center. It simply didn’t work. Dangerous criminals were released by mistake. Others arrested for minor offenses sat in jail for weeks after their release dates. InfoIntegration had delivered a $3 million lemon, and the people in the trenches knew it. The county employees, those who had to use the system every day, nicknamed it “Skynet,” after the computer network that starts a nuclear holocaust in Terminator 3. It was so bad that Dallas County was forced to hire Microsoft just to find out what had gone wrong. When the computing giant released its report in October, it was the IT industry’s equivalent of a public flogging. Microsoft cited fundamental flaws in InfoIntegration’s management of the project, resulting in an “inferior” product. 

Local media scrambled to get a piece of Brenneman, the woman responsible for the mess. Understandably, she became scarce. But a few months prior to the release of the Microsoft report, before the media frenzy began in earnest, Brenneman poked her head out for an interview with D Magazine

I visited her at the keypad-secured inner sanctum of InfoIntegration, on the second floor of the Davaco building on Central Expressway, just south of Lovers Lane. She talked for more than an hour about her background, the genesis of her company, and the problems with the computer system.

One question stood out in my mind: how had InfoIntegration gotten the job in the first place, especially considering that hers wasn’t even the lowest bid?

“Well, faith is good,” she said.

I asked her to explain.

“Faith in God is always good,” she said. “You’re exactly right. We weren’t the lowest bid.”

That Brenneman credited the Almighty for landing the contract was particularly stunning in light of an admission she made later in the interview: she had been romantically involved with the Dallas County official whose job it was to evaluate the bids. Brenneman, then, for all her inexperience, must have understood that in the IT consulting business, faith will only get you so far.

She’s Not in Kansas Anymore
When I asked where she was from, Brenneman said she was a “Midwestern person,” which is a little vague. But that was typical of many of her answers. Her resume says that she graduated from Kansas State University in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in home economics. She went on to earn a master’s in clothing and textiles in 1978. She came to Texas to teach textile design and fashion merchandising at TCU, but by 1989 she had taken a job at Gemini Consulting, where she did corporate restructuring projects. In other words, when companies needed to lay people off, she was the hired ax. By the time she left Gemini in 1995, she had become a principal at the firm.

“I started as a consultant and worked my way all the way up through the organization,” she says. “And I’ve managed some very large teams around the world on some pretty good-size little projects.”

But those “good-size little projects” gave her little IT experience—until she went to work for the company that seemed a logical choice to design the county’s jail computer system. You see, before Brenneman formed InfoIntegration—in fact, up until just a few days before she incorporated her firm—she worked for a place called the Harbour Group, an IT company that also did work for the county. The Harbour Group built the system that keeps track of kids who break the law.

Unlike the adult information system, or AIS, that InfoIntegration botched, the juvenile information system, or JIS, is a relatively simple program. Imagine a long web page, essentially, that allows the county to identify and track juvenile offenders in its custody.

At the Harbour Group, Brenneman had risen from vice president of marketing to vice president of business consulting in 2000, and then to executive vice president in 2001. As one Harbour Group colleague quipped of her speedy trip up the corporate ladder, “billable is beautiful” in the consulting world, and there wasn’t much marketing work going on anyway. Brenneman was put on the JIS project for Harbour.

She worked closely with County Commissioner Mike Cantrell, the driving force behind the JIS project. The former Dallas County Community College police officer was elected to the Commissioners Court in 1994. Since that time, he has made it his mission to update the county’s technology infrastructure. But Brenneman worked even more closely with Cantrell’s colleague, John Hennessey, the chief information officer for the county. Put simply, Hennessey was an IT guy. Perhaps it was his technical savvy that Brenneman found attractive.

This is another subject about which Brenneman was vague. So the particulars of her relationship with Hennessey remain a bit of a mystery. But at some point, their dealings with each other clearly took on a more intimate nature than was strictly necessary to develop a county computer system. A former Harbour co-worker recalls Hennessey and Brenneman cuddling at a Harbour company Christmas party at Morton’s, The Steakhouse. There were rendezvous’ at the Melrose Hotel. It wasn’t long before everyone on the JIS team became aware of the relationship. “We weren’t dumbasses. You can tell when two people like each other,” one co-worker recalls.

But no one seemed to mind—probably because the collaboration worked. The juvenile system was a huge success, earning the county accolades from the law enforcement and IT communities. To date, 92 agencies are on the system, with 42 using it as their primary tool for tracking juvenile offenders.

The next logical step for the county was to move from kids to adults. Sometime after the launch of JIS, in 2001, the idea was hatched to create a similar tracking system for adult prisoners. Commissioner Cantrell says the impetus for the adult information system came from the users of JIS—police chiefs, social workers, court administrators—who were so pleased with the product that they wanted to expand it. Others claim that Cantrell, Brenneman, and Hennessey dreamed up the idea. Either way, the decision was made to move forward.

In April 2002, the Harbour Group began working on the gap analysis, or transition plan, to go from the juvenile to the adult system. Brenneman was put in charge of the effort. She concluded that 60 percent of the adult system could be borrowed from the juvenile platform, leaving only 40 percent to be developed from scratch. That was her first mistake. The gap was far wider. Lieutenant Gene Summers, commander of the Police Technology Department, says the difference between the two systems is like the difference between tracking a ball as it rolls down a single chute, and tracking one as it bounces around inside a pinball machine. 

“In the juvenile world, you don’t have a bond desk, or probation and parole,” he says. “Everything’s handled one way. With the adult system, they kept encountering more options the individual had, and therefore the program had to be good for everything from murderers to shoplifters. It’s immensely more complex.”

While Brenneman was working on the gap analysis, she was also laying the groundwork to steal the project away from her employer. In addition to courting other members of the Harbour development team, she fomented distrust between Cantrell and her bosses. She knew that once AIS was up and running, Cantrell wanted to share the technology with every county in the state in exchange for a percentage of their federal block grant money as part of a TechShare program. One can imagine the political capital such a gift would engender. But Brenneman also knew that the Harbour Group (and other potential bidders for the project) wanted to copyright the program and sell it. If she were to form her own company and land the project—say, with support from someone on the Commissioners Court—she could preserve the program for public use.

By the end of 2002, higher-ups at the Harbour Group caught wind of her plans and began inserting themselves into the county’s AIS planning sessions. But it was too late. Just days before the county issued its request for proposal on the project, Brenneman resigned from the Harbour Group. Two months later, on June 24, 2003, the Dallas County Commissioners Court awarded her the $1.6 million contract.

THE ACCUSED: Scott Williams (above) says that he didn’t receive his medication in jail and that he lost 60 pounds. Dontreil Daniel (below) says, “There were people in there looking for blood.”

A Curious Vote
The Dallas County Commissioners Court meets in the Administration Building at 411 Elm St. To the rest of the world, the Administration Building is known as the School Book Depository. It’s a perfect setting for conspiracies.

Although he denies it today, Commissioner Cantrell played a hands-on role in securing the contract for InfoIntegration that day in June 2003. Prior to the vote, Brenneman sat with her team in the court chamber, chatting and laughing. She exchanged whispers with Cantrell’s assistant, then made a series of trips between the court chamber and Cantrell’s second-floor office. Eventually, Cantrell himself escorted Brenneman on a last-minute campaign stop to Commissioner John Wiley Price’s office. The sometimes controversial, always outspoken civil rights activist in designer suits and cornrows says the message was clear: vote for Brenneman and InfoIntegration.

When the court was in session and it came time to discuss the vote, three commissioners voiced their misgivings about awarding the contract to the upstart InfoIntegration. In the month between the submission of the bids and the June commissioners meeting, allegations had surfaced that parts of the county’s request for proposal on the project had been written by Brenneman herself, giving her a leg up in the bid process. Price asked the district attorney’s office to look into the matter—with the help of none other than John Hennessey. And it was Hennessey who reported the findings of the investigation on the day of the vote. He assured Price that there was no conflict of interest.

Next up was County Judge Margaret Keliher, a former CPA turned lawyer and the first female judge in the 157-year history of the Commissioners Court. She went on the record to explain that, while she would vote to award the contract to InfoIntegration, she wanted to make sure the county was covered in the event of a lawsuit. She assumed that Brenneman had signed a noncompete agreement as an employee at the Harbour Group, and she wanted to require InfoIntegration to carry a performance bond, a form of insurance that could be used to pay for a lawsuit, or to fix the computer system, in the unlikely event that it didn’t work.

Hennessey assured Keliher that there would be a performance bond. But later, the bond was dropped because InfoIntegration needed the money to cover its operating expenses.

Finally, then-Commissioner Jim Jackson (now a state representative) made sure it was known that he flat-out did not want to award the project to InfoIntegration. “I just want it to be recorded [that I am] voting no,” he said.

The court order passed, with Cantrell, Price, and Keliher voting in favor, Jackson voting against, and Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield absent for the vote.

Competing bidders immediately cried foul, claiming the decision had been made well before the actual commissioners’ votes. A grain of salt would seem necessary to digest these complaints, coming as they did from firms who’d missed out on a good chunk of business. But it turns out there were several good reasons to question, if not the vote itself, the integrity of the bid process and the assumptions underlying the vote.

Lock Them Up, Throw Away Their Data
Price had a bad feeling about the InfoIntegration contract from the beginning. He had heard the rumors about the relationship between Brenneman and Hennessey for months. As the project progressed, the rumblings grew too loud to ignore. He called Hennessey into his office and confronted him about the relationship.

“I said, ’Maybe you’re too close to Tonya.’ And he didn’t deny it,” Price says. “I told him I didn’t think he could be a fair arbiter of the issues.” Two weeks later, Hennessey resigned. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

That the rumors about Hennessey and Brenneman turned out to be true made Price question everything about the project from that point forward. He says he saw “icebergs” up ahead and began asking more and more questions about AIS. He educated himself on the technical aspects of the project. After talking to Bubba McMillan, a consultant with the Harbour Group, Price asked for an official review of AIS development to date. But he couldn’t get a second to his motion from any of the other commissioners. In fact, he says he faced outright hostility from Cantrell, who seemed to take Price’s questions about AIS as a personal attack. “Well, you know he was extremely belligerent. I mean, very protective of the project,” Price says.

Price himself might have hurt his own cause. Aside from calling into question InfoIntegration’s competence, he also complained that the company didn’t have an ethnic-minority business partner on the project. This clouded the issue. But six months before the system was scheduled to go live, Judge Keliher had also grown frustrated with the process. She had seen a constant flow of pricey amendments to the AIS contract cross her desk for approval. And no one could give her a straight answer about how much more time and money the project would require.

“I told Cantrell that I couldn’t do this anymore,” Keliher says. “I refused to sign off on any more payments. I said, ’You have to give me some plan, saying on this date we will have this system for this amount of money.’ I was told, ’We don’t have what you’re asking for, and we won’t slow down the project.’”

Keliher finally seconded Price’s motion to call for a vote on hiring an outside firm to audit InfoIntegration’s work. But the court wasn’t with them. In January 2005, InfoIntegration’s AIS system finally went live.

Almost immediately, the Lew Sterrett Justice Center was thrown into chaos. Even though there were only 139 users on the system, somehow they created a huge load that the database couldn’t handle. A case backlog developed. Making matters worse, InfoIntegration used a dual-entry system to train the Sheriff’s Department to book arrestees, which meant that both the mainframe and AIS kept a copy of the record. But when users altered one record, the information was never updated in the duplicate record. During court proceedings, erroneous records sometimes showed that a prisoner had never been charged with a crime. Adding to the confusion, a bug in the AIS application caused the system to insert two records into the database if a certain button was pressed.

As a result, prisoners got lost and languished in jail long after they should have been released. Scott Williams and Dontreil Daniel were arrested three months apart in February and May 2005, respectively. They tell almost identical tales about their time behind bars at Lew Sterrett. Both were arrested on misdemeanor charges, Williams for DWI and Daniel for a domestic disturbance. Both immediately notified friends or family about their arrests, and both sat in jail due to computer glitches. Despite paying bail, Daniel was in jail for a week. Williams never paid bail because they were unable to locate him in the system.

Williams, who is HIV positive and suffers from insomnia and depression, didn’t receive his medication while in jail, causing painful withdrawals. He says he was forced into solitary confinement, where he had to sleep naked on a cold cement floor that doubled as the toilet. Upon release, he says, he had lost 60 pounds, which was a severe blow to his immune system. “This took 10 years off my life,” Williams says. “The bottom line is I was locked up and forgotten, and it’s all due to the computer system.”

Daniel’s ordeal was less harrowing, though just as avoidable. Despite his size—he looks like he came off the offensive line of a college football team—he is a soft-spoken man. I visited him at his Deep Ellum loft. He says he had never been in jail before he was arrested on May 8, and he found it to be a chilling experience. His cell featured a single, nonfunctioning commode. He shared it with hardened criminals. “There were people in there looking for blood,” Daniel says. “They’d find the smallest person and beat them up, humiliate them, and steal their clothes.” Both Daniel and Williams say they had nightmares for months after being released.

The AIS system functioned so poorly that the District Attorney’s office quit using it soon after its launch and went back to the mainframe. Finally, after the Morning News and Dallas Observer published other horror stories like these, Price and Keliher got enough votes to get an independent review of InfoIntegration’s work. Microsoft was chosen to do the evaluation, prompting Price’s oft-repeated line: “Hell, we went from Bubba to Bill—Bubba McMillan to Bill Gates.”

The $460,000 Autopsy
Amazingly, Cantrell to this day still defends InfoIntegration and the adult information system it designed. And he still defends his vote to award the contract to Brenneman’s firm, saying that the company had “the same skill set, the same institutional knowledge coming over from the Harbour Group.” However, the Microsoft report shoots a big hole in that claim. It is clear from its findings that InfoIntegration did not bring over the high-level software engineers from the Harbour Group who were necessary to design a software application as complex as AIS.

Cantrell won’t even allow that he might have been misled, or just ill-served, by Hennessey. When I asked him if he even thought Hennessey’s relationship with Brenneman gave the appearance of a conflict of interest, Cantrell said he knew nothing about it but that, in any case, it was “kind of irrelevant.”

Cantrell points out that it wasn’t just Hennessey pulling the strings. An entire review committee evaluated the bidders and recommended InfoIntegration. Hennessey sat on the review committee. Cantrell argues that Hennessey had only one vote on that committee. Not only was Hennessey one of only two people on the committee with an IT background, he was the IT director for the county. As fellow committee member and Carrollton Municipal Judge Deanna Burnett recalls, Hennessey was the person all of the nontechnical people turned to with questions. Although she says she didn’t feel like the review process was compromised at the time, when told about Hennessey’s relationship with one of the bidders he was evaluating, her response was a little more skeptical than Cantrell’s. “Yeah, it stinks,” she says.

The fact remains that people did get stuck in jail. If InfoIntegration isn’t to blame, then who is? Cantrell has an answer: Atos Origins, the outsourced vendor that operates that old 1965 mainframe. The mainframe had been reliably generating court reports—which included documents with bond information, offenses, jail locations, and court dates—for the county for 40 years. In every interview that Cantrell has given about this debacle, he has offered the same explanation for it. He repeated it to D Magazine: “There’s no single thing that contributed more to [inmates getting lost] than Atos shutting off the court reports when we went live with AIS.”

Robert Clines, the current CIO for the county, says there is some truth to that statement. He says the reports were disabled at some point after the launch of AIS, and that undoubtedly caused many of the problems with lost and forgotten prisoners.

But Microsoft says even that could have been foreseen by InfoIntegration. In October 2005, Commissioner Price finally got his independent review of AIS. And while the report didn’t say anything about Atos Origin shutting off the court reports, what Microsoft does say about the integration of AIS with the mainframe is that neither InfoIntegration nor Atos Origin knew what the other was doing—and didn’t seem to care.

“[They] were concentrating on their own issues … rather than attempting to make sure the entire system from end-to-end works as designed,” the report said.

What’s worse, there was no quality assurance (QA) testing done on the system. Again, from the Microsoft report:

“Best practices dictate that an independent QA team is chartered to test and stress the system, thus identifying any problems prior to release. … The assumption seemed to be that the end users were supposed to test the system, but apparently that did not happen. … Based on information we have available, our conclusion is that InfoIntegration did not have a formal QA process in place and the end-user testing was at best cursory.”

In other words, to see if its system worked, InfoIntegration simply turned it on and started running prisoners through it. This would be akin to putting an experimental jumbo jet into service without doing any test flights first.

An inferior system had been unleashed on the county, with more than 40 percent of the prisoner data getting fumbled when it was exchanged between AIS and the mainframe. That nugget of bad news, along with 390 pages of equally damning analysis, cost the county $460,000. Add that to the $3 million spent on AIS, figure in the $2 million or so it will cost to redesign the system, and it turns out that awarding the contract to Brenneman was a $6 million mistake.

Do You Want to Hear the Worst Part?
Like Cantrell, Brenneman is still in denial—or at least she was when D Magazine interviewed her, before the Microsoft report was made public. She says there was nothing inappropriate about her relationship with Hennessey. She claims it had ended by the time she put in her bid. She also says the news reports detailing a system-wide failure got it all wrong.

“By and large, we saw everybody,” she says. “And the wild reports of people getting lost in the jail, AIS knew where everybody was.”

When asked what InfoIntegration could have done differently to avoid some of the problems experienced by the county, Brenneman couldn’t think of anything on the spot. “I don’t know that I have a spiffy answer for that,” she says. “Certainly it’s unfortunate.”

The AIS contract is unlikely to be renewed with InfoIntegration. For a company that based its entire existence on a single project, this is not good news.

Cantrell agrees InfoIntegration’s contract should be open for re-bid, but he says that’s only because of all the bad publicity the company has received and that “nothing went wrong” on the AIS side.

Clines is a bit more cautious in his assessment. He says the jail component is operational and that AIS is and will be the county’s jail and electronic filing system. He says the county is using AIS and will continue to do so—though right now the system is not performing all the tasks it was designed to. As of press time, the DA’s office was not using the system. The Dallas Police Department uses it as an investigative tool, to retrieve photos and other information. But the DPD can’t use it to book criminals.

And the real kicker? The whole time Dallas County was developing AIS, Tarrant County was busy developing its own system to track adult offenders. Cantrell knew about it. Tarrant’s system launched in April, just two months after AIS went live. At a cost of $1.3 million, Tarrant’s system does most everything AIS was supposed to do—and it actually works. It would need only minor additions to adapt it to Dallas’ needs. And Tarrant County is offering its system to other government agencies free of charge.

Photos by Elizabeth Lavin

Newsletter

Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.

Comments