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Businessman who dreams of buying Dallas Cowboys says he proved his critics wrong on contact tracing

The Watchdog shows how a much-criticized $295 million Texas contract got whittled down to about $65 million.

Who is this guy who claims with a straight face that he wants to — get this — buy the Dallas Cowboys?

Das Nobel turned heads his way when the state awarded him a $295 million contract last year to run the Texas contact tracing program for coronavirus victims.

Even though it’s federal money, that’s a lot of money to go to someone nobody’s heard of.

Several readers contacted The Watchdog with questions about this. One wrote, “Not really sure what the money is being used for.”

“I haven’t seen or heard anything about the progress of the project and results of the investment,” another wrote. “Could you look into this and report the findings to readers?”

The Watchdog is happy to.

Knocked out giants

At first, it was a true underdog story. Nobel, who came to America from Bangladesh as a teen 25 years ago, beat out some of the best-known global brands to win the contract.

MTX Group, his little-known company headquartered in Frisco, knocked out giants like IBM, AT&T and Accenture to win an emergency contract.

His job? Build in less than a week’s time a call center dedicated to contact tracing in Texas.

When MTX won, legitimate questions were raised by competitors, reporters and politicians, Republicans as well as Democrats in the legislature. A group of Republicans even sued to stop the contract, which did not have legislative approval.

Why did the Texas Department of State Health Services skip the public posting process and invite 11 companies to bid? Why were companies only given 48 hours to prepare a proposal? And why was the bid awarded only five days later? Answer: The state was in a big hurry to organize a statewide tracing system in the midst of the pandemic.

Why pick a company that had little experience in contact tracing? Answer: What company did have experience doing that a year ago? Nobel promised a quick setup, which happened, but in the early weeks the program did not run smoothly.

Why did Nobel’s LinkedIn profile state that he had a doctorate when he hasn’t finished his dissertation? Answer: An embarrassing error fixed after it was pointed out.

The MTX offices in Frisco
The MTX offices in Frisco(Shelby Tauber / Special Contributor)

‘A fast process’

MTX, as promised, built a call center in four days, eventually hiring 600 Texans to staff it. The service was offered to every county. San Antonio is the largest city to use the center.

People who may have been exposed to an infected person could talk to a phone worker, hear of their status and learn how to care for themselves.

In January, the contract was renegotiated with the state. As of this week, MTX has been paid $46 million. Nobel says it will likely top out at $65 million, one-quarter of the original total which MTX will never reach.

Did it work? As much as contact tracing can work when people don’t answer their phone or return calls. Many view tracing as intrusive and an invasion of privacy.

Plus, with thousands of new cases popping up every day during the virus peak, it was impossible to keep up.

State health services spokesman Chris Van Deusen says: “They had the best bid. It was a fast process, but it was a fair process. The bottom line is they did what they said they were going to do.”

In a state audit of MTX’s performance released this week, no major problems were found.

In his office, Nobel — a small, soft-spoken man — tells me: “We expect scrutiny. It’s taxpayers’ money.”

Scrutiny is what he got.

Getting state contracts

When I ask if his rough initiation into Texas politics left him bruised, he says it wasn’t as tough as the time he was new to America, couldn’t speak English and was beaten up by four boys.

He was nicknamed Gandhi, and it took him a while to figure out that his classmates confused India with Bangladesh.

His father, a teacher, moved the family to the U.S. for a better life. His father couldn’t teach, so he found employment as a dishwasher.

Six years ago Nobel launched MTX, whose name is a tribute to one of his favorite movies, The Matrix. Remove the vowels, he explains, and you’ve got MTX.

MTX specializes in software creation and data management, serving governments in areas such as licensing, vaccination records and tracing.

Before the pandemic, MTX had contracts with 13 states. That has grown to 30 states. What’s his secret to gain so many states so quickly?

“We bring speed,” he says. It’s his mantra. Big companies can’t move as fast, he explains. “We’re like a fighter jet. We can take left and right turns really fast.”

That speed was what earned approval from Texas officials to award him his largest government contract.

He tells me he uses the credibility he earns with one state to impress another. He calls it “rinse and repeat.”

“Oftentimes, we say, ‘Take a chance with us. Give us two weeks and let us build something.’”

The company also has contracts in Australia and India and hopes to expand into Canada.

‘Deal with adversity’

When the criticism hit a year ago, he says, at first it was a big surprise and a distraction.

“Did it bother me last year? Yeah, maybe for an hour. You’re taught to deal with adversity and maintain your composure.” He focused on the work because he knew he could get the job done and help save lives.

When politicians sued to stop the contract, his lawyer told him not to worry. The suit was tossed out.

Matt Hirsch, a former policy advisor for Gov. Greg Abbott, now advises MTX. Hirsch tells The Watchdog, “There’s no question the big-name competitors of MTX were not happy with losing this contract, and they naturally had an interest in trying to discredit the CEO and the company.”

For strength, Nobel quotes a Victorian era poet: “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”

Buy the Cowboys?

Soccer was how the youngster from Bangladesh made friends and found acceptance in the U.S. In tribute, MTX is the main jersey sponsor for FC Dallas. You can see MTX in big letters on the front of every player’s jersey.

An FC Dallas jersey with the MTX name on it is framed in Nobel's Frisco office. MTX is a team sponsor.
An FC Dallas jersey with the MTX name on it is framed in Nobel's Frisco office. MTX is a team sponsor.(Shelby Tauber / Special Contributor)

State lawmakers got the last word on this. In the new state budget, money for the MTX contract is zeroed out.

MTX’s contract now likely ends Aug. 31, the last day of the state fiscal year. Tracing may no longer be necessary anyway.

Before leaving his office on Cowboys Way in Frisco, I ask Nobel about his supposed desire to purchase the Cowboys. I expect him to smile and laugh it off. But that doesn’t happen.

“I would like to buy the Dallas Cowboys,” he says. For real. He even names the target year — 2027.

“Dream big,” explains the man who is master of his fate and captain of his soul. He’s no longer an underdog.

Updated at 7:35 p.m.: An earlier version of this story attributed the “master of his fate” line to Nelson Mandela. Mandela quoted the line, but it was actually written by a Victorian era poet.

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In This Story

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog investigative columnist. Dave has written a hard-hitting newspaper column in Dallas/Fort Worth since 1993. His work appears twice a week. His goal is to save readers time, money and aggravation. In 2019, Dave won top prize in America's largest column-writing contest. The contest judge called his winning entries “models of suspenseful storytelling and public service."

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