City rules skirted for Dixon ally

Top aide discussed plan for no-contract payments in e-mail

May 05, 2006|By DOUG DONOVAN | DOUG DONOVAN,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon's top aide discussed a plan in 2001 that for the past five years circumvented city rules and paid Dixon's former campaign chairman $500,000 without a contract, according to documents obtained by The Sun.

The e-mail exchange involving the plan is among 27,000 pages of documents city lawyers recently gave to state prosecutors investigating how Dixon's office paid the former campaign chairman, Dale G. Clark, to manage council computers.

Under the arrangement laid out in the e-mail, payments were supposed to be kept to less than $5,000 each. City procurement rules require that contracts over $5,000 be approved by the five-member Board of Estimates, which is chaired by Dixon and controlled by Mayor Martin O'Malley.

The e-mails offer an apparent explanation of how the questionable payments began. In March, after The Sun revealed the arrangement, Dixon suspended her deputy chief of staff, Carolyn Blakeney, and reprimanded her chief of staff, Beatrice Tripps.

In April 2001, The Sun reported that Dixon had personally crafted a no-bid contract for Clark a year earlier that had been approved by the board.

Though the deal expired in March 2001, Clark continued to get paid without a contract. Dixon said at the time that she was wrong for setting up the deal and that she would seek competitive bids.

But a month later, on May 3, 2001, Tripps sent Clark an e-mail that offered a way around the rule requiring board approval for contracts over $5,000.

In the e-mail provided to state investigators and obtained by The Sun, she tells Clark: "I received a memo back from the Law Dept. and they suggest that if we do a new contract we should do it by the book."

She wrote that such an arrangement would require a waiver from the city's law mandating the inclusion of minority subcontractors. She wrote that the exemption had not been obtained for the expiring $90,000 contract, an indication that the deal did not abide by the city's minority inclusion law.

Tripps also asked whether Clark's company, Ultimate Network Integration, was certified by the city as a minority business enterprise.

"At this point I think the best thing to do would be to pay you as a selected source via [direct purchase order] for amounts under $5,000," Tripps wrote. "Therefore you should submit invoices for March and April in increments under $5,000. You may want to look at weekly versus monthly. The balance remaining in our budget for your services is $33,940."

Clark responded in an e-mail that same day that he was no longer a certified minority business. He also said that he was considering "assembling a mega-team to bid on" the information technology contract "when it goes back on the streets."

"Thoughts???" he wrote. "I'll submit the invoices weekly if you'd like. Is weekly better than bi-weekly for you?? Can we have lunch one day next week to talk about the future??"

Dixon's office proceeded to seek competitive bids for Clark's work four times over the next four years. Each time all the bids were rejected for various technical reasons. Clark continued to be paid.

Reached by phone, Tripps declined to comment yesterday. But Dixon called The Sun and accused the newspaper of printing "lies" about her and her staff.

"There were mistakes made in my office that I had no knowledge of, in some cases," Dixon said yesterday.

She then referred further questions to her attorney, Dale P. Kelberman, a principal at the law firm Miles & Stockbridge and a former federal prosecutor.

"There was not a contract in place for a period of time, no one is questioning that," Kelberman said. "People make mistakes. That's what all this is about. [Dixon] has already said she recognizes that a contract should have followed here and it didn't - that's the be-all and end-all to this."

He said the documents given to the state prosecutor's office on April 14 detail Clark's extensive efforts to build the council's Web site, expand the system, and provide at-home access for council members and their staff.

The records turned over to state investigators also show that there had been widespread dissatisfaction with Clark.

He often did not bill the office on time. One office-wide e-mail from a now-former employee in Dixon's office, Gail Willis Booth, asked, "Where is Dale?"

"Maybe the City Council members need to find another IT firm that would provide us with the services we need, because you're not doing it," Booth wrote on Sept. 16, 2003. She claimed that Clark was never on site more than "five times a year."

Even the council president's sister, Janice Dixon, who was working part time in the office, sent an e-mail complaining.

"Dale, I'm still not getting e-mail from city hall. It appear[s] I'm the only one. I've [sic] was told at the staff meeting today even the new person is getting his remote mail. Help! Please! Janice," her e-mail on March 23, 2001, states.

Kelberman said Tripps and Blakeney did their best to find a new contractor.

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