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State CIO's conference travel questioned

Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn's travel log is the subject of a state investigation.

Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn -- already at the center of a controversy over whether Massachusetts should dump Microsoft and move state digitized documents to an open source format -- made headlines again this week, this time for his out-of-town travel schedule.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's office yesterday confirmed that the state is investigating whether Quinn failed to obtain proper permission for six out-of-state trips to vendor-sponsored industry conferences in 2004 and 2005. The story was first reported by the Boston Globe. State records obtained by the newspaper show that between April 2004 and August 2005 Quinn traveled to 12 out-state-conferences, from Chicago and San Francisco to Brazil and Ottawa.

Many of the conferences focused on open source options. Quinn told the Globe his expenses were paid for by conference hosts or out of his own pocket, as state guidelines dictate. He also told the Globe he received verbal permission for trips not approved in writing.

Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said yesterday that "private reimbursement for a public employee's travel is generally allowable." Authorization for that travel must be obtained ahead of time. "We have discovered that Peter Quinn's travel record is incomplete and we are reviewing the matter," he said.

News of the investigation into Quinn's travels was a hot topic on some IT-related blogs yesterday, with open source advocates coming out in force. Some accused the software giant Microsoft of being at the root of the investigation. Tom Adelstein, a principal in the open source consulting firm Hiser + Adelstien, posted a letter slamming Microsoft and the investigation. "To what depths will Redmond stoop to save their cash cow? They certainly don't mind ruining a man's career."

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In June, speaking at the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA) conference in Cambridge, Quinn said that a recently launched Government Open Code Collaborative (GOCC) will help the state cuts costs and enable states to replace outdated legacy systems. At the time, Quinn disputed that a move to open source was motivated by wanting to get rid of Microsoft. "Some people think it's an anti-Microsoft thing," Quinn told a SearchOpenSource reporter, but I've worked through a lot of stuff with Microsoft."

The September announcement that Massachusetts would standardize on software that supports "open" document formats, such as the OASIS-backed OpenDocument Format, was met with some political opposition. Last month, Linda Hamel, counsel for the state's Informational Technology Division, testified the Senate's committee on Post Audit and Oversight at a hearing where she highlighted Microsoft's lobbying efforts at the state level, and prompted one senator to ask whether she was saying politicians opposing a move to open source had been "bought."

Now comes the investigation into Quinn's travels.

Meanwhile, Microsoft and Massachusetts may wind up finding middle ground. In recent days, Massachusetts has given the tentative nod to Microsoft's pledge to submit its Office Open XML specifications to Ecma International, a standards body, for ratification. That means Massachusetts is optimistic that Microsoft's Office Open XML will meet new open format standards. In response, Carl Cargill, director of corporate standards at Sun Microsystems, yesterday addressed a letter to Thomas Trimarco, secretary of the Executive Office for Administration & Finance, urging Massachusetts to act on existing open standards. "Just as an agency would not purchase a product before its actual availability, so too would it be a mistake to rely on a single vendor's promise to submit a new product to a standards body at some point in the future," Cargill wrote.

Contacted yesterday, Hamel said she could not comment on whether Quinn's trips violated the state's conflict-of-interest laws. Massachusetts decided several years ago to stop funding out-of-state travel out for state agencies, she said. "That is why travel out-of-state has to be paid either out of the staffs' own pockets or by the conference," she said.

It's customary for state CIOs to travel to vendor-sponsored events. Douglas Robinson, executive director of NASCIO, the national association for state chief information officers, said the organization has worked hard to avoid conflict of interest issues for its members. The organization does not have a vendor exhibition floor at its conference, and conference attendance fees come out of annual membership dues – to avoid having vendors foot the bills.

Quinn spoke at a New Orleans NASCIO conference last September on the topic of open source, according to records provided by the state's Administration and Finance division, which is handling the investigation. NASCIO's Robinson said that Quinn also spoke at a NASCIO conference in October. Open source, Robinson said, is a hot topic with state CIOs across the nation.

"Talking informally to state members, they are all either examining that option or currently running some open source solution," Robinson said. And while, NASCIO does not recommend or rank software solutions, "We clearly think this is an area that requires decision-making on a CIO level," Robinson said, "which is why we have it on the agenda."

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