Dragnet

A new computer database system called CriMNet is supposed to revolutionize crime fighting in Minnesota. Cops, politicians, big business, and the media love it.

As public safety commissioner Stanek sees it, linking CriMNet to federal anti-terrorism efforts makes perfect sense. "Homeland security is all about intelligence and information sharing. Well, that's what CriMNet is. It's just a name for intelligence and information sharing," Stanek says. Since the launching of CriMNet development efforts, Stanek says, he's taken about a dozen trips to Washington, D.C. Twice, he's met with Tom Ridge, the secretary of the new Department of Homeland Security. Stanek also has courted officials with the Department of Justice, largely in the hopes of garnering more federal funds for the project. To date, the project has received two federal grants totaling some $5 million. "There's a lot of federal money out there," Stanek adds. "Our job is to bring it back to Minnesota."

 

Despite all these efforts to market the CriMNet plan on a national scale, it remains an open question whether the system will work. Already, red flags have popped up. Last month the CriMNet Policy Group quietly but unanimously voted not to renew the contract for David Billeter, an attorney and e-commerce specialist from General Motors who was hired to run the project a little more than a year ago. Few people associated with CriMNet would go on the record to discuss the reasons for Billeter's departure, and Billeter could not be reached. In Stanek's view, Billeter was smart and talented, but there was concern about his "political and managerial skills."

Not long after Billeter was hired, state representative Phyllis Kahn sent a memo to fellow legislator Phil Krinkie calling into question some of Billeter's decisions. In particular, Kahn raised her eyebrow at the selection of a small Atlanta-based software company called Mobiam Solutions, Inc. to design the CriMNet backbone. Because Mobiam's CEO, Steve Kostyshen, served as the CEO of another dot-com that had business dealings with General Motors, Kahn figured Billeter should have recused himself from the selection process.

In December, meanwhile, a group of local criminal justice IT professionals met in St. Paul to evaluate the CrimMNet design. After two days, the group forwarded its findings to the CriMNet steering committee. In a draft report, the committee concluded that the CriMNet approach, "while conceptually viable, is very high risk." Echoing Kahn's concerns, the report questioned the selection of Mobiam to design the backbone, noting that the company is "a very small and very new vendor." (The company, founded in 2001, lists only two customers on its website: the State of Minnesota and ACTRA, a Canadian performing-artists union. Neither Mobiam CEO Kostyshen nor the company's public relations representative returned City Pages' calls.) The steering committee report raised other questions, too. Uncertainty about the size and scope of the project, as well as future funding, posed a "catastrophic" risk. In the end, the report recommended that the current design be scrapped and the whole CriMNet system be "reconstituted."

That recommendation was rejected by the CriMNet Policy Group. CriMNet's Kooy points out that the assessment from the steering committee came in a draft report. And many of the conclusions, he says, were based on incomplete information. "There was a lot of concern on our part when we saw those contentions, and quite a lot of hullabaloo," he says. "But I think most of that was ironed out over the holidays."

Others remain doubtful. State Representative Krinkie notes that large-scale government technology projects are notorious for their high failure rates. By some estimates, as many as 85 percent of such projects run aground eventually. In large part, such failures are a product of the design-by-committee approach. Krinkie believes the ambitious nature of the CriMNet model heightens the risk. "Our track record at the state level has been poor, and here we're trying to do something no other state has even bothered to undertake," Krinkie says. "I think we bit off more than we can chew."

Krinkie, who has attained much of his notoriety in the legislature as a keen and vociferous critic of wasteful government projects, contends that CriMNet should be significantly scaled back or possibly scrapped altogether; he believes the prospect of continuing funding with no clear limit in view just doesn't make sense. In the past decade, according to a new report prepared by the House of Representatives Fiscal Analysis Department, the state has spent more than $112 million on criminal justice information projects. The department projects another $86 million in expenditures in the next two years, and, as Krinkie emphasizes, there is no end in sight. "This is a system that could easily run half a billion dollars, maybe even a billion," Krinkie theorizes.

Not surprisingly, the project's supporters roundly dismiss such naysaying. On the issue of cost, they often say, the question is not whether the state can afford to build CriMNet, but whether it can afford not to. And they dismiss concerns about possible design flaws. "Failure is not an option on this project; it's just too important. This is the number one criminal justice project in the state and it's got support across the board. I think within two years you'll see it statewide on a fairly regular basis," says Rich Stanek.

As the new public safety commissioner, Stanek will be a major player in the future of CriMNet. And in his view, the future is bright. Within a few years, he suspects that the general public will have access to one of CriMNet's most valuable features, the criminal history check. And that, he maintains, is only right: "Should I be able to go on the Internet and look up criminal information on the neighbor down the street who wants to baby-sit my kids? Yes."

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