Report: D.C. wasted $4 million on TV studio

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; B08

The D.C. agency that regulates cable television in the city "wasted over $4 million" on a high-definition television studio that was never built, according to a report from the Office of the Inspector General.

The report, released late last week, says the D.C. Office of Cable Television violated procurement policies by issuing a sole-source contract to a start-up company "without adequate justification and reasonable assurance" that the contractor could do the work.

In addition to the cost of the contract, which was canceled before the project was completed, the cable TV office bought more than $3 million in new HDTV equipment that was never installed or used.

"This contractual agreement also violated OCT's internal operations policy on equipment and facilities usage and was inconsistent with responsible stewardship over District funds," the report concludes.

The audit states that James Brown, former director of the cable TV office, and other city officials entered into a four-year contract with Mason Production Services in August 2006 to design and market the HDTV studio.

At the time, the office was looking to upgrade programming on government-access channels, which broadcast D.C. Council meetings, school events and mayoral news briefings.

The inspector general concluded that a sole-source contract was not necessary and that multiple vendors should have been given a chance to do the work.

The report also asks why the administration of then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) tried to build an HDTV studio in the first place.

"Our research disclosed that other governmental jurisdictions currently do not use HDTV broadcast equipment and technology," the report says. "It is not clear how this project was clearly in the interest of the District government, its agencies, or the citizens of the District of Columbia."

Brown declined to comment Tuesday.

Fifteen months after the project began, the city canceled the contract with Mason Production Services for unknown reasons, according to the report.

Although Mason had been paid $1 million for the design of the studio, it was never built. The city also had spent $3 million for equipment that remains in boxes.

William Todd Mason, the owner of Mason Production Services, which is now called Broadcast Management Group, said in an interview that the project stalled after Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) took office in 2007.

Mason said he withdrew from the contract in October 2007 because there was too much nonsense from the city's procurement office.

"When [Fenty] was sworn into office, a lot of the equipment was already there. And it was too late to stop, and they should have finished it," Mason said. "That would have been the most cost-effective thing. . . . They really did waste money."

Mason said most of the $1 million he received from the city went to vendors. He also said the inspector general's report was "ridiculous" and "political cover" for Fenty.

"I am the one who was not willing to keep doing this because it was a waste of my time and embarrassing," Mason said. "I will never again do business with D.C."

Eric E. Richardson, who took over as director of the cable TV office in January, issued a statement Tuesday that says the agency "acknowledges various discrepancies made in the past" but "remains committed to managing and using resources in an efficient and effective manner."

Richardson told investigators that his office plans to use the HDTV equipment in a studio being built at the District's McKinley Technology High School.

When completed next year, the studio will be a "learning lab" for students. By that time, however, the equipment will be more than four years old and may no longer be of practical use because of technology advancements, the report says.

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