City OKs contract with investigation subject

Fire Dept. supplier tied to spending probe

Sun follow-up

July 26, 2008|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun Reporter

A city panel has approved a $265,000 contract for Draeger Safety Inc. to supply breathing apparatus parts to the Baltimore Fire Department even as the comptroller's office investigates questionable spending practices involving the company and the fire agency.

The city fire chief, Jim Clack, said yesterday that the department's relationship with the company is "aboveboard" and that next year, he hopes to replace all the department's breathing gear supplied by Draeger, perhaps using a new vendor

Clack said the investigation into the off-the-books account kept by Draeger and commanders running the training academy would not affect the outcome of the bid. The chief said the problems uncovered last year involving the company and his department would not happen again.

"A lot of times when issues like this come up, it is people that are coloring outside the lines, so to speak," Clack said. "We're not going to do that. We're going to makes sure that whoever our vendor is is not going to do that."

The new contract with Draeger was approved Wednesday by the Board of Estimates and is for parts and maintenance for breathing gear, such as air tanks, that the city owns. Draeger is the only provider of replacement parts for its equipment, and using other parts voids the warranties, according to the Board of Estimates agenda item describing the contract.

Robert McCarty, a city auditor, declined to comment on the city's probe of Draeger and past spending practices at the training academy, saying the investigation is still open.

Graeme A. Roberts, the vice president and chief financial officer in Draeger's Pittsburgh office, said yesterday that his company has cooperated with city requests and has provided auditors with "any information that they've required."

The contract approved Wednesday is at least the second-largest approved by the city since officials learned of the unusual relationship between the Fire Department and the company. The other contract was for about $206,000 and was approved in late August, said James M. Fischer, the Fire Department's financial director.

The city's comptroller office began investigating the Fire Department's relationship with Draeger last summer when The Sun reported that the department had purchased unauthorized equipment using a spending account designed to circumvent city oversight rules.

A low-level firefighter used the account to make at least 35 unauthorized purchases - including 15 purchases that were for more than $5,000 each and would have required approval by the Board of Estimates, which oversees city spending. All of the items purchased were fire-related, records showed.

The training academy ran up $257,587.72 in credit with Draeger without city approval over five years. The account began in 2001 with the knowledge of then-Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. and was funded by money left over from authorized city purchases that were not delivered. It grew to include funds from equipment rebates, discounts and returns.

Draeger gave the Fire Department's training academy substantial discounts on items, but fire officials billed the city for the full amount and credited the savings in an off-the-books account that was used to buy more equipment from the company.

In an interview when he retired last year as chief, Goodwin said that he believed the fund was much smaller and had ended years ago.

Draeger's Roberts said the contract approved Wednesday will "absolutely not" be funded through rebates and discounts. Douglas V. Campbell, who ran the fund for the Fire Department, retired last summer, and dealings with the company are now being handled by one of his deputies.

The department initiated new controls to prevent unauthorized spending, said Chief Joseph V. Brocato, the commander in charge of the department's training academy. Brocato said that he now signs off on every request for equipment the department makes from Draeger.

"I don't have any concerns about getting into a situation like we had before," Brocato said. "We're not doing anything in returning anything to Draeger. We cleaned that all up. There is no back and forth with that."

Clack said the gear provided by Draeger is nearing the end of its useful life and that the department plans to purchase new equipment through a competitive-bidding process. "What we're going to look at is what is the best [breathing apparatus] for Baltimore City. If it happens to be Draeger, we will sign a contract with Draeger."

He said that he will use a committee, including rank-and-file firefighters, to test equipment manufactured by other companies, and added that nobody on that committee will have pre-existing relationships with the vendors.

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