Mayor vows Dixon `look'

Probe will examine paying friend's firm despite no contract

March 14, 2006|By DOUG DONOVAN | DOUG DONOVAN,SUN REPORTER

Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday that his administration will try to determine how City Council President Sheila Dixon's office was allowed to pay $600,000 to her friend's company without obtaining a contract for most of the past six years.

"Certainly we'll go back and look at this again and see if there is something we might have done differently, might have done better to have been able to flag this as a problem," O'Malley said.

O'Malley said Dixon should have obtained proper approval for work that her office gave to her friend and former campaign chairman, and that his finance officials should have detected the problematic arrangement sooner.

The mayor also said Dixon is capable of taking the reins of City Hall if he moves to Annapolis by winning this year's race for governor. Asked whether he trusted Dixon to take over as mayor if he wins, O'Malley said, "I do."

But his political rivals say voters should interpret Dixon's actions as a reflection on O'Malley's lax oversight.

The Sun reported Sunday that Dixon's office has steered the council's computer services, worth $600,000 in six years, to Dale G. Clark, her friend and former campaign chairman. But since March 2001, Clark has earned the bulk of that pay without a contract from the city's Board of Estimates, which Dixon chairs and O'Malley controls.

All city contracts of more than $5,000 must obtain the five-member board's approval. After questions from The Sun about the arrangement last week, Dixon acknowledged Friday through a spokesman that her office had erred, and that she had disciplined two staff members responsible for the "major oversight."

Dixon would not comment yesterday. Chris Williams, her spokesman, said her silence on the contract stems, in part, from its possible link to a Board of Ethics investigation of the president.

Ethics officials, who are set to gather Thursday for their regularly scheduled meeting, are reviewing information about Dixon's participation in several official matters that involved city contracts given to a small company that employs her sister - actions that appear to violate the city ethics law.

Her sister's employer, Union Technologies, is a minority subcontractor for the city's main computer services contractor, which is now handling the council's computer work that Clark had been providing.

Clark's work with the council's computer system dates to 1996, when then-council member Dixon first recommended his company, and expanded significantly in 2000, soon after Dixon became council president. She signed a contract with his company, Ultimate Network Integration, in February of that year, and obtained board approval of it the next month.

The deal expired in March 2001, but Clark's work continued. After a Sun article at the time revealed Dixon's relationship to Clark, the council president said she was wrong for giving him a no-bid contract and for not opening the work to competitive bidding.

The city sought bids for the council computer contract four times, rejecting all bids for technical reasons. The city Finance Department continued paying Clark. In May 2005, the board awarded the work to another firm, which was fired seven months later. Despite having a $47,000 contract with the new company, the city continued paying Clark for the same work until Feb. 28.

Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, a Board of Estimates member, said she "hasn't known of any [contract] being rejected four times," but that the board followed the recommendations of purchasing officials.

O'Malley said it appears that Clark's contract was extended without proper authorization after each rejection of all bids.

"That's the problem here is that the contract was allowed to carry over when it probably should not have," O'Malley said.

The mayor said he is satisfied with Dixon's decision to discipline her two top staff members.

"My reaction was that I was glad to see that the council president stepped up, took responsibility and took the actions with her staff that she did," the mayor said.

However, his political rivals said it is O'Malley who should be taking more responsibility for Dixon's actions.

"The responsibility of Sheila Dixon's fuzzy ethics lie at the feet of Martin O'Malley, who controls the Board of Estimates," said Audra Miller, spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party. "Either he has proven lax oversight, or he has been agreeable to President Dixon's side deals."

O'Malley's opponent in the Democratic primary, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, said Dixon's problems reflect weakness in O'Malley's management abilities.

"We know that numbers are not the mayor's strong suit, and now it appears that they are not Sheila Dixon's either," said Scott Arceneaux, Duncan's campaign manager. "In 2006 alone, we have seen an audit of the [city schools] that reveals major irregularities; fuzzy, if not incorrect crime statistics; and now city contracts apparently improperly paid. These all reveal a lack of leadership, pure and simple."

doug.donovan@baltsun.com

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