Saturday, April 11, 2009

All That Glisters

"If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me." -- Shakespeare, Macbeth (Act I, Scene III).

In the spring of that year, I found myself sitting alone in a wing that made up half of the consulting company's Silicon Valley flagship office. The shark they had hired as new V.P. to sack the ship and toss the crew overboard was halfway through his charge. When I spoke on the telephone, my voice echoed across the empty room, bouncing off the concrete walls that once had been decorated with bright posters or flow charts describing the work on Fortune 500 company websites. I had to walk the length of the office, through the doors to the lobby, and into the doors for the adjacent wing to catch a glimpse of another employee.

So when my college friend from Sacramento called to say he had a lead on a job with the California Governor's office, I assembled a resume, a slide presentation of my web design and writing abilities, and drove the two hours to the capitol to treat the bureaucrats to my best dog-and-pony show.

The trick, my friend explained, was to get in tight with advisers and consultants to the governor who were of Mexican-American origin. They had, my friend assured me, the governor's ear. They were called, as a governmental bon mot, the Mexican Mafia.

I met my friend's friend in a small office outside the capital area. They were golf buddies and did some consulting for the state. My friend's friend had a friend with government contracts in the technology staff and could act as a kind of Masonic sponsor to usher me into the tribe. It didn't matter that I was a Russian Jew: my friend was Portuguese, his friend was Mexican-American, and the friend in the technology department was Latino. The Department of Technology, created in 1995 to oversee all technology and software purchases, was under the direction of a Mexican-American bureaucrat.

It was arranged for me to meet with a Hispanic member of Governor Gray Davis' staff to present my wares. The department had a website that had been poorly cobbled together over several gubernatorial administrations and looked it. Visitors complained that it took hours to find what they were looking for on the site, if they were lucky to find it at all. I told the staff that I could straighten it all out for $70,000.

They agreed, my contract went to the Mexican Mafia at the Department of Technology, was approved immediately, and I moved to Sacramento. This was in a time when technology was king, the state was buoyed by revenues, and the Department of Technology, housed in a formidable black palace known as the Darth Vader building, approved contracts with the same aplomb as a California medical marijuana doctor tosses prescriptions like confetti.

My quarters were less threatening. I worked across the street from the sprawling Capitol Building in a quiet office with friendly people. The office was run under a formal director, a southern California attorney of note who wore an impeccable tan and, on Fridays, Hawaiian shirts. But the troops took their marching orders from a career bureaucrat, a Hispanic who had come over from the FDA. I had privileges of walking the capitol grounds, visiting the governor's office for formal affairs, and attending to my own business without the apparent care of others so long as I made routine progress on re-organizing the website and turning in my time sheets regularly to the Mexican Mafia in the Vader building.

The pace of the project, one might say, schlepped along like a glacier. I was used to turning around a major website in a matter of months or less for a Fortune 500 client. At the state--where the unofficial motto among career workers was "vest in peace"--it took months just to push initial planning paperwork through channels. I surfed the net, handled outside clients, took leisurely walks in the trees lining the capital mall. They were happy with my work, and I was happy to have it.

Then, suddenly, the man in the Hawaiian shirts resigned and dark chatter smoked like a vapor throughout the building. Something, somewhere, was wrong. I got a call from my man in the Vader building with an urgent request for lunch at one of the fancy restaurants along the mall.

"Do you know anything about Oracle?" my insider asked me between courses. I said I knew they made customer relationship and business software. He nodded. If I heard anything about Oracle I was to call him for a meeting.

Frankly, I had preferred to hear nothing about the office, about software, or even the government. I had met Governor Davis, a New Yorker with the personality of an fish Popsicle, and I cared as little for him as anyone could without having a real opinion. So back to the slow crawl I went, enjoying my noon walks in the rose garden or workouts at the local gym, then back to my cubicle for an afternoon of shuffled paperwork. But the hush-hush atmosphere began to peal like a shame bell through my hours.

After the lunch date, I started to read the Sacramento Bee, particularly a conservative columnist who had little talent and blustered like a wounded rhino at the Democrats. The scuttlebutt was that the Administration had paid $42 million more than it needed to pay for Oracle software to serve a staff of 270,000 workers. A year after the no-bid contract had gone out to the bay area giant, not a single state employee for whom the buy was intended was using Oracle's software.

Not long afterward, three members of the Department of Technology resigned. I had my lunch date with my sponsor and he assured me all was well with my work. Then, the Bee dog-piled on a story that wouldn't go away: In May 2002, Davis returned a $25,000 campaign check cut by Oracle and passed to a staff member in a restaurant just days after the no-bid multi-million contract went out for the software no one used. And someone we knew, it was whispered through the halls of so many buildings in the capitol, was the man who accepted the check.

I completed the project, was shuffled into another office in under the Governor's umbrella and quietly laid off shortly after Davis barely survived a re-election campaign in 2002. But a year later Davis was toppled in a recall effort led by body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger. I had worked with Arnold on the set of End of Days, spinning a teleprompter machine for a message to film distributors. He was short, intense, had all the personality that Davis could have wished for, and in short order led a state to near-complete, economic collapse, having gutted fundamental programs for education, the less fortunate, and elderly.

Oracle, it must be said, has never been accused of wrong-doing in this matter, especially not here. But the company name is historically suited for the dramatic stage.

As for my initial contact in the Mexican Mafia, the man with the small office outside the capital was arrested and convicted for drunken driving in a quiet residential area, resulting in the deaths of several members of a local family.

This is all anyone should write about it. The story would make for fantastic, tragic drama, except for the whole thing.


Char said...

politics - *humphf*

Bill Stankus said...

Corporations - gov - religions - unions - co-ops - whatever... basically the same form and function for all ... the same biz as usual. At least you some some $$ and got to watch the movie.

Starlene said...

What a mess. Again...ineffective, soulless, inefficient. But maybe I'm generalizing. I tend to do that.

A Cuban In London said...

As your last line reads, this stuff should have been on the desk of Mr HBO Commissioner or Director of Programming. Intrigue, suspense and those Mexicans... boy! Should I call Tom Waits to start working on the soundtrack, or would you rather do it, Gabs, mate :-)?

Greetings from London.