Tech firm leaves Buffalo students in a lurch

HarpData, hired to provide wi-fi access to thousands of low-income families, is closing without finishing the job

After nearly two years of doubts and delays, Buffalo Public Schools is canceling a contract to provide free wireless internet to some of the district’s neediest students. 

The reason: HarpData, the company the district hired to do the job, is going out of business.

An attorney for HarpData, Joseph Makowski, confirmed that CEO Ivory Robinson Jr. is “winding down” the company’s operations. Staff has been laid off. The company’s offices on Delaware Avenue in downtown Buffalo remain under lease, Makowski said, but are closed for business.

As a result, the beleaguered Connected Communities initiative — a $1.3 million project meant to provide wi-fi service to 5,500 students — is dead in the water, according to Nathaniel Kuzma, the district’s general counsel. 

On Dec. 4, Kuzma sent HarpData a letter indicating the district’s intention to cancel the contract for cause, saying the company had “defaulted in performance.”

“As a result of HarpData’s default, not a single location is functioning to provide the much-needed internet access to the surrounding community, during this much-needed time,” Kuzma wrote in the letter.

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The project has been stuck in the design phase since mid-summer, Kuzma told Investigative Post. None of the $430,000 worth of hardware the district purchased in the spring has been installed, and work on the project “has essentially come to a halt.”

Among other reasons for the cancellation, the district said “HarpData lacks the financial wherewithal” to complete the project and no longer has the requisite staff to do so because the company “has ceased operating indefinitely.”

The company has 30 days to respond. 

Makowski said Robinson has not yet instructed him how to reply, but expressed his desire to complete the project.

Kuzma declined to speak further on the matter, citing the possibility that HarpData would challenge the contract’s cancellation in court. In the meantime, Kuzma noted, the district has moved on.

The district is currently rolling out the Stay Connected program, a collaboration with Spectrum, funded in part by a $500,000 donation from the Buffalo Bills. The program provides qualifying households six months free internet service from Spectrum, including hardware and hookup. 

The program targets many of the same neighborhoods HarpData’s Connected Communities project was supposed to serve. Connected Communities was designed to boost wireless signals from eight schools in neighborhoods on the East and West sides that lacked internet connections.

That access became critical in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the school district to convert to distance learning. Many students living in houses that lacked an internet connection were left behind. 

Behind schedule from the start

Connected Communities was behind schedule the day it was awarded. 

The district put the contract out to bid twice — first in January 2019, then again two months later. The school board voted to award HarpData the contract that July, three months later than originally planned.

Next came delays in settling the terms of the contract, driven in part by HarpData’s wish to be paid upfront for some of the work. There followed revelations that HarpData was beset by lawsuits and financial problems, as well as allegations by past customers that the company had failed to pay bills and complete jobs.

Last December — before the COVID crisis made household internet connection critical to the district’s education strategy — top district officials expressed their concerns about the company’s ability to deliver a successful project. 

“We have a $1.3M dollar project that I have doubts our vendor can deliver,” Richard Fanton, the district’s purchasing director, wrote in a Dec. 2, 2019, email to Kuzma, the district’s general counsel, and Geoffrey Pritchard, the chief financial officer. 

Those officials recommended Superintendent Kriner Cash cancel the contract and start over. But Cash instructed the district to press on with the project and HarpData.

However, HarpData continued to struggle. In April, Cash cut the company more slack, giving Robinson time to get the project back on track over the summer. 

“I want him to succeed,” Cash said of the Riverside High School alumnus.

Instead, the company reduced staff hours, according to former employees, then missed at least one payroll, even after taking a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. A subcontractor HarpData brought in on the project said it wouldn’t do any work unless its fee was first put in escrow.

By September most of the staff was furloughed. In October, Robinson informed his staff the company was shutting its doors entirely.

Millions in claims

The company leaves in its wake a string of allegations of broken contracts and unpaid vendors, according to court documents and other public records.

There are at least three active lawsuits against the company, with claims totaling more than $1.2 million:

  • Locally, Kaleida Health is seeking $365,376 in damages for work it alleges HarpData failed to perform.
  • Arrow Enterprise Computing Solutions, based in Colorado, is seeking $562,423 for unpaid invoices related to the project that led to Kaleida’s lawsuit.
  • Panasas Inc., based in California, is seeking $309,610 for unpaid invoices related to a project for the University at Buffalo.

Makowski told Investigative Post that Robinson had not been served summonses for the Arrow and Panasas suits.

There are currently two judgments against HarpData filed with Erie County Clerk that total more than $1 million:

  • $810,680 owed to Core BTS, filed July 26, 2019. Core BTS sold equipment through HarpData to Kaleida Health and the Erie County Medical Center. The company alleged — and the courts agreed — that HarpData stiffed Core BTS for part of the bill.
  • $225,004, owed to Premier Capital Funding, filed Oct. 14 of this year.

Makowski, HarpData’s attorney, told Investigative Post that Robinson disputes the amount owed to Core BTS. In March, HarpData filed a countersuit in state Supreme Court seeking to lower the figure. The suit was dismissed in August, however. Makowski filed a motion to reargue his case, but there has been no ruling on that motion.

Makowski said Robinson was unaware of the judgment filed by Premier Capital Funding.

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In April, HarpData was approved for a $157,500 loan through the federal Paycheck  Protection Program, intended to support 13 jobs during the COVID crisis. Recently released data does not indicate when HarpData received payment, but former employees told Investigative Post hours were cut in half in mid-May, and sales staff either laid off or moved from salary to commission-only.

A PPP loan is forgivable if the recipient maintains staffing levels. If the company lays off staff, it remains a loan, albeit on very favorable terms.

In October, Robinson registered two new companies — HarpData Connections Inc. and HarpData Technologies Inc. — with the New York Department of State. 

Makowski, who represents only Robinson and the original HarpData, confirmed those entities belong to Robinson. Makowski did not know whether the two new companies were actively conducting business. Nor did he know whether the entity he represents, HarpData LLC, intended to file for bankruptcy.

The aftermath

The district’s new initiative, Stay Connected, aims to serve 3,000 households, whereas Connected Communities initially sought to reach 5,500. 

However, an engineer familiar with Connected Communities told Investigative Post it would never have served as many households as projected. And one prospective bidder warned the district in February 2019 the project would not work, even if completed.

“The overall initiative is a great idea, and to be applauded, but the technical solution you have requested to deliver service inside the home, will not work well enough to be usable,” Nathaniel Byrnes, CEO of Rooftop Technologies, wrote the district in an email.

The wireless mesh proposed by HarpData, Byrnes explained, would lack “sufficient transmit power” to provide useful, stable internet connections to students engaged in distance learning. 

The service Spectrum offers is hardwired into homes, which industry experts told Investigative Post would offer faster and stable connections than the wireless project sold to the district by HarpData.

Whether or not it is suitable to the district’s needs, the wireless equipment HarpData currently sits in boxes, in the district’s custody.

Kuzma said the only payment the district made on the contract was $430,000 for the purchase of the hardware. Part of that payment was diverted by the courts to pay down the Core BTS settlement.

“It’s our equipment, and we have it,” Kuzma said. “We will pursue how to effectively use it in the future.”

In his state of the city speech last February, Mayor Byron Brown touted HarpData as a partner in his “Smart City” initiative. On various occasions, Robinson’s company has enjoyed the support of Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Board of Education President Sharon Belton-Cottman.

Now Robinson — who did not respond to an interview request from Investigative Post — apparently is preparing to leave town. 

Last week he posted for sale online a host of home and office furnishings and equipment, including computers, monitors, and a printer. In one listing, for a $1,200 leather couch, Robinson wrote “I hate to see it go but moving west.”