Inspector General's report criticizes city's phone purchases

Report cites appearance of conflicts of interest

September 28, 2012|By Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun

An investigation by the city's inspector general into the Rawlings-Blake administration's purchase of nearly $675,000 in phone and computer equipment found possible conflicts of interest and missed opportunities for "significant cost savings."

Inspector General David N. McClintock also found that the Mayor's Office of Information Technology withheld information from other city officials about the project. For example, a former deputy mayor directed another city employee to mislead City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young by denying that the mayor's office was taking steps to upgrade the city's phone system.

The mayor's information office failed to get multiple quotes when buying equipment, which could have yielded savings, McClintock wrote. He also wrote that two key managers charged with implementing the new system were contractors with Rockville-based Digicon Corp. One of them was allowed to commit city resources "in a way that financially benefited Digicon."

The mayor's information technology office "failed to take reasonable and appropriate measures to ensure that contractors did not engage in activity that either created conflicts of interest or the appearance thereof," McClintock wrote. "It is apparent that either the conflict issues were not recognized or that they were dismissed."

The Baltimore Sun obtained a copy of the report Thursday. The inspector general plans to publicly release his report Friday.

Administration officials took issue with some of the report's findings and said the equipment was purchased at inexpensive prices. In a statement, the mayor's office contended that the technology purchases were "neither out of the ordinary nor in violation of law," citing an opinion by the city solicitor. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has "made ethics a top priority of her administration," according to the statement.

The administration also noted that it has already worked to "significantly tighten controls on the City's electronic procurement system to ensure that all purchasing procedures and guidelines are strictly adhered to."

Damien Sharp, the chief of staff of the mayor's technology office — and a former Digicon subcontractor — no longer works for the city, according to the administration's statement. His judgment in this case "has become a distraction to MOIT," the statement said.

Digicon did not respond to requests for comment. As a subcontractor, Sharp's relationship with Digicon was "virtually nonexistent," a Digicon lawyer has said.

Rawlings-Blake has "implemented a new staffing contract to diversify the pool of IT professionals, from the existing two vendors to as many as 50 vendors, significantly reducing reliance on any single IT contractor," the mayor's office said. The city is also "implementing new requirements for all contracted staff to ensure that there is not even the appearance of a conflict of interest."

McClintock's report noted that the chief of staff was "involved in MOIT's purchases from Digicon during his tenure" as a Digicon subcontractor and tried to dissuade a project manager from seeking price quotes from other vendors.

For months, Rawlings-Blake and Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt have sparred over the purchase of phone-related equipment by the mayor's information technology office. Pratt's office had undertaken a similar effort to convert the city's phones to VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol. Such systems are considered more efficient and allow calls to be placed through the Internet rather than on traditional phone lines.

Pratt has said that the equipment purchases should have been subject to a separate competitive bidding process. The city solicitor, George Nilson, says the transactions were covered under a blanket purchasing contract for computer equipment and didn't need further bidding.

The inspector general's report did not take issue with the city solicitor's opinion that the mayor's office had the authority to purchase telephone hardware. That issue, it added, "is separate and distinct from the question of whether that procurement was conducted in accordance with the laws, rules and procedures governing the procurement process."

McClintock's report found the following:

•Top administration officials deliberately tried to conceal from Pratt and Young their plan to replace the phone system. "We should be done with half the city before they get around to awarding a bid," then-Chief Information Officer Rico J. Singleton wrote to a former deputy mayor.

•About $673,000 in purchases were for equipment and installation of a new phone system, not the other uses that administration officials have contended.

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