The National Information Technology Center, an ambitiously named quasi-public agency bankrolled by the Schaefer administration to the tune of about $2 million, has apparently turned into a costly bust.
The Rockville-based center, launched two years ago by the state's Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), has laid off five of its six employees, and its continued existence is in doubt, according to one of those dismissed.
The employee, who asked not to be identified because of concerns about future employment, said the center's president, Michael Walter, had been out of the office for the last week and a half on what was described as a leave of absence. The five employees who were laid off, all except the center's treasurer, were told by Paul Schneck, the acting chairman of the organization's board, the former employee said.
Dr. Schneck, a fellow at Mitre Corp. in Reston, Va., declined to confirm or deny any internal actions until after a Nov. 5 board meeting. At that meeting, the board's executive committee will propose changes to make NITC "more responsive" to the state and its private members. Dr. Schneck took over as acting chairman only recently, after Comsat Vice President Ivor Knight resigned.
Mr. Walter, the NITC president, could not be reached for comment at his Great Falls, Va., home.
Originally named the Maryland Information Technology Center, NITC was launched to help make Maryland a national leader in high-technology information industries. Billed as a "technology broker," it attracted more than 50 member companies and was making plans to move into permanent quarters on the grounds of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
But the laid-off staff member said the state government had seen little or no return on its investment because of mismanagement. "If an entity gets $2 million and doesn't have a good amount of tangible return, there's something wrong," said the staff member.
Technology Access Report, a trade publication, reported that a state audit last spring had characterized NITC's first-year performance as "lackluster."
Greg Merrill, president of High Techsplanations in Bethesda and a member of the NITC board, confirmed that the state's dissatisfaction with NITC's performance had been an issue at recent board meetings.
Mark Wasserman, the state's secretary of economic and employment development, was traveling with Gov. William Donald Schaefer in Western Maryland and could not be reached, a spokeswoman said. Joseph Harrison, a spokesman in the governor's press office, said he had not heard of problems at the center.
Dr. Schneck said he expects the changes the NITC board will make would lead to continued state support. "It is my expectation that the state will find that their investment has yielded some fruit and that we can make the tree stronger," he said.
But senators who sit on the subcommittee that oversees DEED's activities said the legislature is unlikely to pour more financial fertilizer on a tree that hasn't produced.
"You can't put money into something that isn't showing results," said Sen. William H. Amoss, the Harford County Democrat who heads the subcommittee.
Sen. Julian L. Lapides said he never understood why the state had poured money into the center in the first place.
"Many of us in the legislature smelled a rat and were not really sure what they did," the Baltimore Democrat said.