City work might be denied to Utech

Company with ties to Dixon lied about ability to do jobs, probe determines

May 10, 2006|By DOUG DONOVAN | DOUG DONOVAN,SUN REPORTER

The company being investigated for its ties to Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon lied about its abilities to fulfill certain government contracts, according to city officials, and could be stripped today of its privilege to apply for most future city work.

The city's five-member Board of Estimates is set to consider revoking the "certificate of qualification" that it awarded last year to Union Technologies, or Utech, a minority subcontractor that has employed Dixon's sister. The action would render Utech unable to apply for qualification again for two years.

Utech subverted the board's process of qualifying contractors by submitting "falsified and inaccurate financial statements" to obtain the certificate, according to a written opinion to be presented this morning to the Board of Estimates from the city's Office of Boards and Commissions, which oversees certification of contractors.

The expected action by the Board of Estimates, which is chaired by Dixon and controlled by Mayor Martin O'Malley, comes three days after The Sun reported that Utech has rarely, if ever, performed its own work on city contracts. The company is being investigated by the state prosecutor.

The Sun also obtained documents yesterday that show Utech is being sued by an Atlanta financial firm that lent the Baltimore company money in 2002, when it was negotiating its first city contract.

Utech President Mildred E. Boyer has not responded to repeated requests for comment over the past two months, though she has denied wrongdoing in an e-mail sent last month to city officials.

Seeking verification

The board's qualification process aims to verify that contractors and subcontractors applying for city contracts have the financial and professional capacity to perform the work, and it is generally required in advance of approval of contracts worth more than $25,000 in the areas of "construction, maintenance, repair or demolition of physical facilities," according to the city's contractor qualification rules.

Other records indicate that the Board of Estimates qualified Utech for city work on June 29, 2005 - after the board had awarded the firm nearly $900,000 in city subcontracts since 2003.

City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler said yesterday afternoon that Utech did not need the qualification for that work, because he said Utech performed only "computer services," not "structural work."

The certificate approved for Utech in 2005 includes qualification for up to $8 million in various forms of work, including electrical, building construction and maintenance, installation for cable communications systems, street lighting and power lines.

Utech was hired in 2003 as a minority subcontractor for two of City Hall's biggest contractors: Comcast Corp., the city's cable television provider, and TeleCommunications Systems Inc. (TCS), the city's computer network manager.

Questions about Utech first arose after The Sun reported in February that Dixon asked Comcast officials at a council committee hearing why they were no longer employing Utech. She did not disclose that her sister, Janice Dixon, had worked full time for Utech since February 2004 and part time for some months before that. Dixon has said her sister no longer works for Utech.

In addition, when Utech came before the Board of Estimates for its TCS subcontracts between 2003 and 2005, Dixon never abstained, according to city records. Documents related to today's scheduled board item reveal for the first time that Dixon also did not abstain from the board vote that approved Utech's certificate of qualification.

The city's ethics law prohibits public officials from participating in "any matter" that involves a sibling's interest or the interest of a relative's employer. It says public officials must recuse themselves from participating in such matters, if they have knowledge of their relative's position. They must also disclose such conflicts.

The Maryland State Prosecutor's office has issued subpoenas to several city agencies, as well as to Comcast and TCS, requesting documents about Utech.

"While we're under investigation, we're not making any comments," said Beatrice Tripps, Dixon's chief of staff.

Utech is also being scrutinized by the city's Minority and Women's Business Opportunity Office. That office is reviewing whether to renew Utech's certification as a minority-owned firm, a designation that allows companies to be hired by contractors seeking to fulfill their obligations under the city's minority inclusion law.

The office is trying to determine whether Utech violated a prohibition on minority subcontractors from paying others to perform the bulk of their work, a condition aimed at preventing contractors from using front firms to meet minority targets.

Other subcontractors

The Sun reported this week that Utech used other subcontractors and transferred grant-supported city employees to its own payroll, to fulfill many of its subcontracts with TCS.

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