Senior city officials knew last year about overpriced light bulb deal

Leaders told in meeting that minority-owned firm worked without contract

December 05, 2003|By Doug Donovan and Laura Vozzella | Doug Donovan and Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Senior city officials knew since late last year that a minority-owned company was selling pricey light bulbs to Baltimore - without a contract - but permitted the practice to continue after being assured the purchases were proper.

C.N. Robinson Lighting Supply, the white-owned company that has held the city's light bulb contract for 25 years, alerted City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. and then-purchasing director Arthur B. McNeal Sr. at a meeting last year that city agencies were improperly buying bulbs from minority-owned B&B Lighting Supply.

Since March 2000, the city has purchased $230,000 in bulbs from B&B, despite having a contract to purchase the same items for far less from C.N. Robinson. The city overpaid for those bulbs by $40,000, invoices show. Most were bought by the Baltimore Convention Center.

Complaints about those off-contract purchases were renewed in the past few months as the city bid a new two-year, $1.1 million light bulb contract that starts next month. On Wednesday, the Board of Estimates awarded the contract to B&B Lighting.

November meeting

Robert A. Mills III, president of C.N. Robinson, met with Zollicoffer and McNeal in November last year to complain that by buying from B&B, the city was cheating him out of some of the business he was entitled to under the city contract. Mills said Zollicoffer told him the B&B purchases were permitted because the contract did not preclude agencies from finding alternate suppliers - an explanation Zollicoffer offered The Sun in a recent interview.

Zollicoffer could not be reached for comment yesterday, but a spokesman for Mayor Martin O'Malley said the solicitor relied on McNeal's assurances.

McNeal, in turn, said he relied on assurances from the convention center's comptroller that the B&B purchases were permitted because the products were specialty items not covered by C.N. Robinson's contract.

The comptroller, Guy Tamberino, who retired in October, said he did not recall that conversation. He said the convention center bought bulbs from B&B because it was a "minority supplier."

Mills said he and his lawyer first alerted McNeal to the purchases from B&B on July 25 last year. The city has purchased bulbs from B&B as recently as August.

Safeguards dropped

That month, the city learned that McNeal had rewritten the new light bulb contract, removing fiscal safeguards, to favor smaller, minority companies, city officials have said. McNeal, who disputes that, stopped working for the city about that time for reasons that have not been made public.

"The allegation was made from C.N. Robinson and the purchasing agent at the time - who no longer works for us - said that it wasn't true, that B&B was only selling specialty items," said Rick Abbruzzese, an O'Malley spokesman. "Once it was determined what the facts were, the situation was remedied."

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