Company rose, then went astray

Demise of minority contractor Utech raises questions about oversight of city program

June 11, 2006|By DOUG DONOVAN | DOUG DONOVAN,SUN REPORTER

For some time, Mildred E. Boyer was the ideal model for Mayor Martin O'Malley's minority business development program.

Thanks to the program, the homegrown black female entrepreneur took her one-woman firm, Utech, from a small city job into such projects as installation of wiring at two prominent housing developments.

But Boyer's rise occurred despite a series of major missteps that the city's system was set up to catch. It didn't.

FOR THE RECORD - In articles on Friday and Sunday, The Sun misidentified the group represented by Arnold Jolivet. He is president of the American Minority Contractors and Businesses Association Inc. in Washington.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Now the 40-year-old Boyer is in professional peril, banished by the city from all government work for having lied about her abilities and using other firms to perform her jobs -- in violation of city rules prohibiting minority subcontractors from hiring others to fulfill their contracts.

Utech's problems began because of its employment of City Council President Sheila Dixon's sister and Dixon's votes on contracts involving the firm. But one minority business advocate blames O'Malley's administration for setting Boyer up to fail.

"The system failed her," said Arnold Jolivet, president of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association, who has spoken on behalf of Utech. "The company had all the reason to believe it was operating within the realm of the law. All of a sudden, the city says, `No you're not' -- but the city had approved everything they had done."

The rise and fall of Utech raises questions that the city has not been able to answer about how the firm prospered under the minority program despite having lied about its abilities to perform construction and employing others to do its wiring installation and information technology work for years -- circumstances revealed by The Sun in recent months.

State prosecutors followed those revelations with subpoenas to several city agencies, Dixon, Utech and other companies that employed Boyer's firm.

Only then did the city take action by formally banning Utech from bidding on construction work for two years. Boyer also surrendered her minority certification last week after having been forced by the city to prove she did her own work.

The very system that allowed her to prosper failed to make sure she continued to play by the rules -- until public exposure, Jolivet said.

Documents and e-mails reviewed by The Sun show that the former director of the Mayor's Office of Minority Business Development helped Utech secure its initial major city contract in part by ousting a long-established minority firm in favor of the upstart.

City officials first certified Utech as a minority firm in 2000, rendering it eligible to be hired as a subcontractor on wiring and computer contracts. In 2001, when O'Malley sought to "dramatically increase" the participation of minority- and woman-owned firms in city contracts, the mayor hired Owen Tonkins to head his newly created minority business development office.

Tonkins -- who left his position in December 2003 and now runs a national minority contracting group -- has not returned several phone messages left at his Washington office.

City officials say Tonkins was simply doing his job advocating for a minority firm, long before any problems with Utech were known, and that they acted appropriately once Utech's problems were discovered.

What remains unclear is why Tonkins went to great lengths to secure Utech a contract four years ago even though the firm did not have the employees to honor it.

Boyer, who has not returned calls from The Sun, had already amassed City Hall contacts that might have given her access to Tonkins' office. She previously worked for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, and in 2002 she hired city Comptroller Joan M. Pratt to do her taxes. Her attorney was Claude E. Hitchcock, a Schmoke official and ex-husband of one of O'Malley's deputy mayors.

E-mail exchange

A review by The Sun of thousands of documents that city officials turned over to state prosecutors in April shows that the first written contact between Tonkins and Boyer came in a 2002 e-mail exchange.

The two talked about getting Utech a subcontract as a woman-owned firm with TeleCommunications Systems Inc. (TCS) of Annapolis, which has been paid $30 million to manage the city's computer network since 1998. TCS officials will not talk about the contract while the state investigation is pending, a TCS spokesman said.

Boyer wrote an e-mail to Tonkins on Nov. 17, 2002, with the subject line "Woody Davis Training Project." She wrote she had gotten no interest from Davis, a TCS employee, regarding proposals she submitted for "training prices."

At the time, TCS was employing another woman-owned subcontractor called ECS Technologies to provide training, documents show. "However," Boyer wrote to Tonkins, "[Davis] was trying to get Utech put in place of this other company."

Tonkins replied in an e-mail the next day: "I'll talk to Woody. Keep me posted."

ECS, founded in 1978, had been praised in 2001 by O'Malley after the U.S. Conference of Mayors dubbed it Small Business of the Year.

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