State employees need to wait before joining state vendors

December 19, 2013 

State Auditor Beth Wood is right to raise a red flag after her audit of Medicaid claims found a senior program manager at the state Department of Health and Human Services had gone to work for a department vendor.

“This person left DHHS one day and literally went to work for the vendor,” Wood told a legislative committee Wednesday.

Paul Guthery left his $126,500-a-year state job as an IT manager who helped oversee the state’s troubled Medicaid billing system, NC Tracks. He now works for Computer Sciences Corp., the vendor responsible for the system under a contract awarded in 2008 for $265 million but extended in 2010 to $495 million.

There is nothing barring the move, but there should be. If state executives can jump immediately to a vendor’s payroll, it raises questions of whose interests they will put first before the jump: the public’s or the vendor’s.

State employees should deal with vendors as vendors, not as prospective employers. Such rapid flips from public employee to vendor employee also make it hard on other state employees. A person who was a colleague is now suddenly wearing a new hat and playing an opposite role.

“This is a potential problem in all state agencies,” Wood said.

The issue could come up frequently at the Department of Commerce as several divisions are placed under a private, nonprofit entity and public employees show up doing the same functions as private-sector employees.

State lawmakers and some state employees face a six-month cooling-off period before they can lobby. The buffer for state employees should be at least as long. State employees are free to go to a whole universe of jobs in the private sector, but if they choose to flip from one side of the state-vendor relationship to the other, they should have to wait.

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