Software had no tie to schools chief ouster, company says
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The maker of a software program to help find missing children said his product should not be mixed up in the firing of state schools Superintendent Jorea Marple.
Mountain State Justice, a Charleston-based public interest law firm, alleges the state Board of Education abruptly fired Marple last month because she refused to support certain contracts, including "no bid" contracts and contracts that board members had an interest in.
The firm did not name those contracts in a Friday filing with the state Supreme Court. But one of its attorneys pointed a finger at AmberVision, the product of Morgantown-based technology company SecurLinx.
SecurLinx CEO Barry Hodge said his company has never received any money from the state and never entered into a state contract, no bid or otherwise.
"This 'no bid contract' thing is, like - it just never happened," Hodge said.
AmberVision was meant to improve the federal Amber Alert system, which is designed to rapidly get out information about missing children. AmberVision stores information and pictures in the hopes that keeping all the information in one place can get it quickly into the hands of police.
Hodge said AmberVision has never been used to help find a missing child in West Virginia.
State school board member Mike Green has a "very minor" investment in SecurLinx, Green said on Sunday.
But Hodge said there were problems with the theory about his company and said people making the allegations "got their wires crossed."
Hodge also said the company has "never accepted a penny" from West Virginia for AmberVision. State auditor's records confirm the state has never paid SecurLinx or the AmberVision Foundation, a charity set up for the product.
"I think Mike is getting a total screw job on this thing," Hodge said, referring to allegations Green is mixed up in anything untoward.
At one point, Mountain State Justice's lawyer suggested a link between AmberVision and Board of Education President Wade Linger. Galaxy Global Corp., a company Linger bought in 2010, once did work on AmberVision.
But multiple sources did not reveal any current financial tie between Linger and AmberVision.
Shortly after SecurLinx was founded in 2003, the company got a contract with The West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation to write the program. Former Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., founded the consortium, which is one in a series of multi-million dollar federal projects he brought to North Central West Virginia.
In 2005, Mollohan secured $1 million in federal grant money to expand AmberVision, which was then known as Amber View.
The state school system tried it for several years until federal funding ran out in 2009. At that point, about 9 in 10 school children were using the program, according to media accounts from the time.
SecurLinx took over the program, hoping to keep it afloat and to make money from it. To do that, it had to reintroduce it to schools across the state.
Green said he helped reintroduce AmberVision to people at the state Department of Education after federal funding ran out and SecurLinx had control of it. He also worked with some state-run regional education service agencies, or RESAs, to try to get parents to sign up for the program.
In 2011, one RESA said distributing literature about AmberView at the New Martinsville Walmart was one of its "major accomplishments" for that year.
Hodge said the program has a "core group that really believes in it," but less than $500 in revenue has come to AmberVision from paying customers.
At one point, SecurLinx hoped to market AmberVision to 35 million students across the country, according to a prospectus the company gave to potential investors.
The plan never worked out even though the company hired salespeople to fan out across the country to sell AmberVision.
Hodge said school districts were hesitant to deal with a company. Because of that, AmberVision was "spun off" into a nonprofit foundation in summer 2011. Hodge said the product has less than 400 paying customers elsewhere in the country - at $12 a child.
"It has never caught on, for whatever reason," he said.
Now, Hodge said it is possible that fewer than 10 percent of West Virginia public school children are in the system.
Because of that, AmberVision's future is in doubt.
"If the product doesn't have value and if people don't perceive there is value in it, it doesn't make much sense to support it," Hodge said.
Hodge said the for-profit company had trouble marketing the program to schools, which is why a foundation was created to house AmberVision.
He said, "the reason for taking AmberVision out from under SecurLinx is that we didn't want to go to our law enforcement customers and say, 'Look what we do, we scare parents for $12 a head.' "
West Virginia did get a grant to fund the program this year - but Hodge said he never saw his share of that money.
Asked if the company ever tried to sell the product to the state, Hodge said, "There was never a formal program of any kind of charge for this in West Virginia."
The state Department of Education's AmberVision coordinator, Liza Cordeiro, also said she had not been approached about having the state pay for the program.
AmberVision also comes with a facial recognition program for police, something that is designed to help them quickly figure out if the child they found is the child that is missing - even if a kidnapper has done something to change the child's appearance. But that feature, Hodge said, has never been deployed, though the company maintains the right to market that part of the product.
Besides Green, other SecurLinx investors include Morgantown real estate mogul Parry Petroplus and former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Maloney. Both routinely invest in Morgantown area start-up companies.