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3/18/2009
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Why Kundra Isn't In The Clear

Federal CIO Vivek Kundra might be back in office after a seemingly meaningless weekend of leave, but he's not out of the woods quite yet.

Federal CIO Vivek Kundra might be back in office after a seemingly meaningless weekend of leave, but he's not out of the woods quite yet.To reiterate, Kundra is neither a target nor a subject of investigation related to the raid last week on the Washington, D.C., Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO), where Kundra was formerly the head honcho. The raid instead targeted the city's acting chief security officer Yusuf Acar and a few others, who are accused of defrauding the city with kickbacks from falsified bills.

However, a number of President Obama's nominees have come under fire and more than a few of his nominations have been rescinded or refused, so the right wing is predictably up in arms about Kundra and the press hasn't let go of the story, either. Kundra's life under a microscope will continue for now.

For example, after a conservative blog dug up details that Kundra had been convicted for misdemeanor theft of less than $300 in 1996, when he was 21 years old, the rest of the press took the story for a spin. The White House had been aware of Kundra's youthful indiscretion, and said the matter was behind him.

That could be the least of his troubles. More worrisome for Kundra is the possibility that the Acar story still leaves him as damaged goods. Before the story broke, a couple of Kundra's main claims to fame had been responsible spending via an innovative approach of tracking technology investments like a portfolio manager tracks stocks and transparency via the reams of city data he put online. One of his primary roles as CIO, as he told me last week, is to "go line item by line item and review spending," which includes making sure that agency CIOs and IT workers are doing their jobs effectively.

One newspaper, The DC Examiner, has been on the case, albeit with the caveat that it has done so via anonymous sources that seem to have an ax to grind, so take what you read here with a grain of salt for now. That being said, the reporting the Examiner has done, if it proves true, could undermine confidence in Kundra's ability to assess his subordinates and his reputation as a responsible spender.

According to an Examiner column by a longtime D.C. commentator with sources throughout the city government (she was on a local political radio show for years), Kundra promoted Acar three times last year and, despite overhauling how the government tracked contracts, left some questionable practices in place that had gotten his predecessor in hot water, including allowing a city employee to set up an outside company that then acquired city technology work.

Another report goes even further, though here the sources are "principals" in the Acar case. According to these sources, Acar spoke of "widespread fraud" in OCTO before ever carrying out fraud of his own. Phony work orders from contractors were common, one of the sources said.

Again, those reports should be taken with huge grains of salt. Kundra is undoubtedly a smart man with promising ideas for transforming the government's use of information technology, eager to help make a change. True or not, though, those reports continue to cast a pall over the Kundra's important work and ambitious goals. So far, he's having trouble getting off the ground floor without controversy. Even if Kundra is completely vindicated -- which is entirely possible -- this experience will likely force him to prove he can maintain the necessary oversight to spend wisely and keep corruption in check.

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