You’ve Got (Weird) Voicemail: Senate Phone System Transition Goes Glitchy

Posted October 19, 2010 at 12:44pm

Facing a competitive re-election race in Louisiana, the last thing Sen. David Vitter should be doing is laying on a beach. But anyone calling the Republican’s Washington, D.C., office Monday night could have gotten that impression.

“Vitter night service is on vacation,” a robotic voicemail greeting said around 8 p.m. Or at least that’s what it sounded like. The robotic voice was a bit garbled. “Please leave a message,” it concluded.

A call this morning to Vitter’s communications director, Joel DiGrado, was not immediately returned, but that wasn’t his fault: His voicemail system was malfunctioning, too.

When reached by e-mail, DiGrado confirmed that Vitter is not taking an early winter break and is actually on the campaign trail in Louisiana.

“I’m not sure what’s going on with the voicemail,” he said. “It is my understanding that many offices have switched over to a new system and there may be some complications as it is being implemented.”

Vitter’s was one of at least 20 Member offices experiencing glitches after the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms started the transition Monday to a new system called Watson Messaging.

When the switch was announced last month, an SAA employee said in an interview that it wouldn’t affect Senators’ main office greetings. But anyone calling the offices after business hours Monday night encountered some bizarre salutations.

Hawaii Sen. Daniel Akaka is no karate kid, but the Democrat’s automated voicemail greeting indicated otherwise. Again, the robo-voice was unclear, but it sounded like: “Daniel-san Akaka press one. For Akaka night FVC, press two.”

“You’ve reached the voice mailbox for Kerryack,” a robotic voice seemed to quack from the office of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), followed promptly by, “I’m sorry but that mailbox is full. Please try again later. Thanks for calling. Goodbye.”

Callers trying to reach Sen. Tom Udall heard the same greeting, except the New Mexico Democrat was identified as “Udallack.”

Similar bugs could be found in the offices of Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.).

A call to Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) yielded this: “Welcome to Watson Messaging. Please press pound to access your mailbox.” But doing so sent callers to the now all-too-familiar robot voice, which informed them that the mailbox was full.

Callers to Sen. Bob Menendez’s office, meanwhile, were transferred to the main Capitol switchboard, where an operator said the New Jersey Democrat’s mailbox must be full.

A busy signal was all callers got at the offices of Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio.), Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio).

The phone just rang endlessly at the offices of Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and James Risch (R-Idaho).

An aide answering phones in Vitter’s office Tuesday afternoon said that staffers were also having trouble transferring calls to other staff voice mailboxes. He had to stay on the line for it to transfer correctly, instead of hanging up, he said.

Though the transition is awkward, an SAA employee said there could have been more problems without the new system, because the other system is more than 15 years old.

“It’s getting toward the end of its life and we need the new system,” the employee said. “The system itself is at its end of life. It’s no longer supported. You can’t get parts for it.”

The Sergeant-at-Arms Office did not respond to Roll Call’s request for a comment on the snafu.

The new system will let staff listen to voicemail messages via phone, PC or BlackBerry, will provide storage for up to 30 messages and will deliver the messages to an e-mail inbox as well as the voice mailbox.

The Senate Sergeant-at-Arms’ Office sent e-mails to Senate offices on Sept. 27, asking all staffers to re-record their names and personal greetings and to change their passwords before Monday, when the system went live.