RALEIGH, N.C. (WBTV) – A former employee at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction leaked details of a competitive and controversial bid for software to assess the reading comprehension level of elementary school-aged children and, later, wiped multiple DPI-issued electronic devices in an effort to destroy evidence of the leak, the agency has claimed.
DPI had been evaluating two competing bids for software to evaluate student reading comprehension as part of the Read to Achieve program. The agency formed an evaluation team that included 15 voting members to consider the bids of two companies vying for the contract: Amplify, the company that previously held the contract to provide reading assessment software, and Istation.
The committee voted in early January to recommend DPI and State Superintendent Mark Johnson negotiate with Amplify for the new contract, with six members voting to recommend Amplify, three members voting to recommend Istation and one member voting to recommend both companies.
RFP cancelled, contract awarded
But Johnson ultimately decided to cancel the RFP and related evaluation process after the committee’s January vote. This summer, DPI released information that showed Johnson learned one of the committee members had leaked information about the evaluation to people outside the committee.
Instead, Johnson instructed DPI to negotiate with both companies and formed a separate evaluation committee to recommend one of the two companies based on the results of the negotiations. Johnson has said that evaluation committee recommended Istation.
Johnson ultimately awarded the contract to Istation. That decision is now the subject of a protest from Amplify. The protest was first lodged with DPI and is now being considered by a hearing officer at the North Carolina Department of Information Technology.
While that process is playing out, the contract issued to Istation for reading assessment software has been stayed. Instead, Istation is offering its software to North Carolina schools free of charge while the contract decision is being protested.
DPI has previously released documents to the public showing each committee member signed a nondisclosure agreement that prohibited them from discussing the evaluation process.
A whistleblower provided DPI a text exchange between two non-committee members in which one woman texted another woman details of the January meeting where the committee made its recommendation. The details of the exchange, according to the text, were provided by a member of the committee.
Leaker identified by DPI
DPI has previously released a redacted version the text exchange but has not publicly identified the RFP evaluation committee member identified as having provided the information discussed in the exchange.
But a sworn affidavit, filed under seal as part of the contract protest proceeding currently pending before a DIT hearing officer, identifies the person who leaked confidential evaluation information as former DPI employee Abbey Whitford.
Whitford worked as a K-3 regional literacy consultant in northeastern North Carolina. The affidavit said Whitford retired from DPI on May 1, 2019.
The affidavit was filed by Kathryn Johnston, Deputy Superintendent of Operations at DPI, who supervised the department that handled the RFP process.
“The text exchange references a third party identified only as ‘AW’ who, based on the contents of the document, appears to have been present at an evaluation committee meeting,” Johnston said in her affidavit. “To my knowledge, the only RFP-2 evaluation committee member with the initials ‘AW’ is Abbey Whitford.”
DPI says Whitford wiped computers
In response to a request for comment for this story, a DPI spokesman sent a statement that said Whitford retired after being confronted about leaking information from the evaluation committee.
“A whistleblower alerted DPI about Ms. Whitford’s violation. When confronted about her leak by HR, Ms. Whitford voluntarily went on leave then resigned,” DPI spokesman Graham Wilson said.
“When Ms. Whitford turned-in her state computer, which we suspected may contain evidence of leaks, the IT department said that the computer had been ‘professionally wiped’ to the point that the computer no longer functioned,” Wilson’s statement continued.
In a follow-up email, Wilson clarified Whitford turned in three electronic devices: two Mac Books and one iPad. Wilson said the hard drives of all three devices had been erased.
Whitford did not return multiple calls from WBTV seeking comment for this story.
The North Carolina Public Records Act, and associated retention schedules promulgated by the State Archives, forbids wholesale destruction of records created in the transaction of public business.
Under the law, a record is defined as any tangible thing created in the course of transacting public business and includes electronic documents and metadata.
In response to a follow-up question from WBTV, Wilson said DPI’s investigation into Whitford’s leak and subsequent wiping of her computer is ongoing but that a future referral for criminal investigation is possible.
“The AG’s office has been made aware. When completed, DPI will likely turn it over for criminal review,” Wilson said.