City aide's purchasing investigated Procedures often violated, books show

October 14, 1990|By Ann LoLordo

As Baltimore's chief of building maintenance, Nathaniel "Mark" Jones never overspent his budget. What raised concerns was the way he spent it.

For at least four years, he routinely bought janitorial supplies from a handful of companies, ordering many items that already were in stock in the city warehouse and paying double or triple the contractprice for them, according to city records.

He bought $150 Douglas fir Christmas trees for downtown city office buildings, even though the city usually gets its holiday trees free from property it owns. He bought shrubs for the Waxter Center and other neighborhood facilities, although the city parks department will provide them. He spent $4,115.05 on weather mats for city buildings, even though the city contracts with a company to provide the same kind of mats, records show.

The way Jones bought and paid for janitorial supplies amounts to more than dollars and cents. It added up to a consistent violation of city purchasing procedures, according to city documents reviewed by The Sun. And, for the past year, Baltimore prosecutors and a grand jury have been trying to determine if Jones also broke any laws.

The criminal investigation of Jones involves the purchase of supplies, including items bought from a Baltimore firm, Pikes Peak Janitorial Supply Inc., whose owner, Alexander William Horn, is serving a federal prison term for a string of bank robberies. Haven H. Kodeck, the assistant state's attorney handling the case, said he does not discuss pending cases.

For his part, Jones, 46, said he acted with the knowledge and approval of his superiors, managed city dollars wisely, produced budget surpluses -- as much as $1.2 million in one year -- and ordered materials that got the job done well and won praise.

"My major concern was the upkeep and appearance of those buildings. They were my marching orders," said Jones, who was hired in 1983 when the phrase "Do It Now" epitomized the style and ethic of the administration of then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer.

"We did not go out and buy Cadillacs and Rolls-Royces. But we bought some damn good Chevrolets instead of the used Volkswagens the city had," Jones said. "It's giving folks the decent materials to use.You do pay a little more up front. What you save [is] in labor."

In the summer of 1989, city auditors began to raise questions about janitorial supplies and other items bought by Jones for the city's building maintenance division, the manner in which the city paid for them and whether the city in fact received the goods.

City auditors would not discuss the specifics of their findings because of the ongoing investigation. Allan L. Reynolds, the city auditor, said he referred the case to prosecutors because they have the power to subpoena bank records, documents that would be crucial in determining if someone personally benefited from the janitorial supply purchases.

Jones, who was hired in 1983, no longer works for the city. He was fired in June after he pleaded guilty to theft in an unrelated case in which he was accused of using city workers and materials to make improvements to his Northwest Baltimore home. Jones received a one-year suspended sentence and was placed on 18 months probation.

Since April, The Sun has reviewed 519 transactions approved by Jones between 1986 and 1989, purchases totaling $61,898. In nearly every instance, Jones ordered the goods through a "direct payment order," which is for use in emergencies only when an item is out of stock in the city warehouse.

Purchases on a DPO cannot exceed $300. And, although Jones held to the $300 limit, he got around the restriction by splitting orders for everything from cotton mops to floor strippers, a practice that the city auditor described as an "obvious abuse of the system."

"It certainly can be stated as a general observation and an irrefutable one that goods acquired through contract are going to be cheaper than goods acquired from a favored supplier," said Mr. Reynolds, the city auditor.

There is little or no oversight of the use of DPOs. City payroll officials estimate that they process about 68,000 DPOs a year -- or about 300 a day. And the staff review of DPOs is not done on an agency-by-agency basis. So, if one department is using DPOs to order routine supplies repeatedly, there is little chance that the payroll staff would catch it.

In the rare instance that payroll staffers spot what appears to be an irregularity, they alert the agency and the city purchasing department. That never happened in the Jones case.

City public works officials won't comment on Jones' purchasing practices and his violation of city policies governing the use of DPOs, even though the purchases were approved by Jones' boss, the head of the Bureau of General Services and one of six top agency officials who report to the director of public works.

On Nov. 29, public works officials issued a directive restricting personnel to using only janitorial supplies stocked in the city warehouse.

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