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Former Oracle lobbyist opts for silence

Ravi Mehta declines to testify before a California legislative committee investigating a controversial $95 million contract with the company.

SACRAMENTO, Calif.--A former Oracle lobbyist declined to testify on Thursday about a controversial $95 million state contract, one day after it was disclosed that he had recommended the database giant give campaign contributions to key legislators.

Ravi Mehta, who appeared under subpoena before a legislative committee investigating the contract, refrained from offering testimony under a state statute based on the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Mehta had already reviewed a list of questions the committee intended to ask him, and added that he had the "right to have this committee not inquire beyond matters in its jurisdiction."

Mehta's role in the six-year no-bid contract came under scrutiny after the committee released a Jan. 5 e-mail sent from Mehta to Robert Hoffman, Oracle's director of legislative affairs. The memo lists nine state politicians, explains why they are important to Oracle, and recommends how much money they should receive.

An Oracle representative said that the company did not make the suggested donations and that Mehta no longer works for the company.

The joint audit committee investigation stems from a critical auditor's report issued in April that found the contract gave the state more software licenses than it had employees and would cost California $41 million more than the state's existing contracts, rather than save more than $100 million over six to 10 years, as Oracle maintains. The auditor's report also criticized the speed with which the deal was approved by the governor's office and other state agencies.

On Thursday, committee chairman Dean Florez said the hearings would end on Monday, after they heard testimony from three employees at Logicon, the Oracle reseller that brokered the deal with the state.

"There are some unanswered questions," Florez said Thursday, including "how to protect California against predatory practices of technology companies, whether it be IBM, Microsoft or Oracle."

Oracle, which maintains that the contract is a good deal for the state, has been sharply critical of how Florez has led the hearings, saying they have been unfair to the company. But Florez said Thursday that it was the committee's role to follow up on the state auditor's report.

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"The audit called for two chapters: to find out how the state got into this contract, and how to unwind it was chapter two," Florez said. "There's not a chapter three called 'Ravi Mehta' and a chapter four called 'Campaign Contributions.'"

Florez noted that the investigation would be turned over to the state attorney general after the hearings come to an end.

Mehta made no comment after leaving the hearing. His attorney sent a letter to the committee on Wednesday saying Mehta would not cooperate any further. The letter said the hearings "have begun to resemble a star chamber" and criticized "some members' unwarranted desire to tarnish my client's reputation.

"Nothing would be gained by Mr. Mehta's submission to an unfair, biased and one-sided interrogation by members who have already concluded, without any evidence, that Mr. Mehta has done something wrong," the letter said.

The committee has heard 100 hours of testimony, most of it from numerous state employees participating in the deal. There has been conflicting testimony about whether concerns about the contract were raised to supervisors before it was signed and about the level of scrutiny given to the deal before it was approved by the governor's office and other state agencies. Several people testified that senior managers dismissed their concerns regarding the contract, saying there was not enough time or resources to fully evaluate the contract before a May 31, 2001, deadline.

Since the contract scandal broke, four state officials have resigned or have been suspended, including the head of California's Department of Information Technology. Campaign donations from Oracle to the governor and other state officials have been returned.

Scheduled to appear Monday are Logicon Vice President Guy Speers and employees Raj Mittu and Greg Thomas.

Meanwhile, state officials and Oracle executives are in negotiations to end the six-year contract. The talks revolve around money that has already changed hands and sales tax issues. According to a Logicon attorney, the company that arranged the financing has already paid $52.7 million to Logicon, which passed $35.5 million on to Oracle. Logicon also paid $3 million in sales tax.