ME wasted $10M on faulty body-tracking software: insiders say
By Susan Edelman and Philip Messing, New York Post
October 12, 2014 | 3:58am
The city Medical Examiner’s Office has awarded $10.9 million in taxpayer money to a software company whose shoddy work has led to the loss and mishandling of corpses, insiders charge.
In a widening probe of the body bungles, ME Chief of Staff Barbara Butcher, 63, abruptly quit her $186,900-a-year post after staffers complained that she went into an underling’s office and took a thick file documenting months of computer foul-ups and malfunctions.
Butcher, who said she was retiring, later turned over the damning file to the Department of Investigation, sources said.
The ME’s “case-management system” — which one employee called “a piece of crap” — has come under scrutiny in the wake of blunders in which bodies were wrongly sent to crematoriums or medical schools, and the disappearance of a deceased Upper West Side woman.
“The system is so bad, they can’t trust it,” a consultant hired by the ME to analyze the problems told The Post.
The consultant, who found that the system is often slow, crashes and fails to process information, wrote a memo for ME brass titled, “Lost Bodies, Lost Millions.”
Software company ICRA Sapphire got a series of no-bid contracts totaling $10.9 million starting on the heels of 9/11, when the ME was reeling over the prospect of identifying thousands of victim body parts.
Sapphire’s “sole source” contracts have been renewed with little accountability, critics charge. The ME has largely used Homeland Security grants to pay the company.
‘The system is so bad, they can’t trust it.’
More troubling, the city seems stuck with the company and its product. Sapphire claims it owns the software and is the only vendor that can maintain and service it.
“They wrote themselves into a lifetime contract with constantly increasing costs and poor results,” said Victor Yannacone, a veteran lawyer who reviewed the contracts.
The Connecticut-based Sapphire is a subsidiary of ICRA Techno Analytics in Kolkata, India.
In 2011, the ME hired its former liaison at Sapphire, Naeem Ullah, then a company vice president, as its chief information officer.
Ullah gets a $158,500 city salary and oversees the work of his former employer. The city Conflicts of Interest Board said he could do so if he cut ties to the company. His financial-disclosure forms show no outside income.
Before Ullah came aboard, former ME chief of management information systems Natarajan “Raju” Venkataram, and his co-worker girlfriend, Rosa Abreu, were busted in 2005 for embezzling more than $9 million from an $11.4 million FEMA grant meant to track and identify remains of 9/11 victims. The duo steered computer contracts to shell companies that did little or no work.
An insider told The Post: “They [Sapphire] came here telling the city they could automate all of our departments, meaning whatever processes we did on paper, we could do on computer.”
‘[The city] wrote themselves into a lifetime contract with constantly increasing costs and poor results.’ said Victor Yannacone
But the system’s functions often don’t work, forcing employees to avoid it or use paper, the source said: “Basically, it’s a piece of crap. The system’s ability to track data is flawed. There are a lot of glitches.”
The glitches, workers say, have contributed to ME errors. Among them, the office sent two wrong men to crematoriums. It gave a Bronx man’s body to a Manhattan mortuary school for student embalming. It shipped the body of an 85-year-old woman to medical-school anatomy classes while her son made funeral arrangements.
In one of the worst bungles, the computer system lost track of Rebecca Alper, 71, who killed herself in her West 72nd Street home in September 2013. When kin came to claim her body this past June, officials could not say where it went. The ME dug up 300 graves in a Bronx potter’s field in a fruitless search.
ME spokeswoman Julie Bolcer blamed human error, saying, “The system was bypassed by staff, and appropriate disciplinary and corrective actions are being taken.”
DOI is probing the ME’s processing of bodies as well as the computer problems, officials said.