Baltimore City Comptroller Joan Pratt at a press conference… (Sun photo by Barbara Haddock…)
Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt filed a lawsuit Friday seeking to stop Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's technology office from installing a new phone system, alleging the administration used an "underhanded, illegal technique" to bypass the competitive bidding process.
The suit seeks a temporary restraining order against the Rawlings-Blake administration to prevent the Mayor's Office of Information Technology from using existing contracts with Digicon Corp. to install a Voice over Internet Protocol phone system. The administration and Pratt's office have both been working to install such a system, leading to a City Hall turf war.
"I've been very concerned about the waste of taxpayer dollars," Pratt said in an interview Friday. "In order to stop the waste of further taxpayer dollars, I felt the need to take this action."
Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said he could not comment on the lawsuit because he hadn't seen it. But he said Pratt is wasting city resources by engaging in a legal fight over a matter that should be handled through collaboration among the branches of city government.
"The Office of Information Technology has been trying for more than a month to meet with the comptroller's office to work on a collaborative solution," he said. "Any court action is an unnecessary waste of time and resources and is completely ill-advised."
Baltimore's Board of Estimates, which is controlled by Rawlings-Blake, rejected a $7.4 million contract with IBM for a new phone system in July. Pratt said that IBM was the lowest bidder and should have been awarded the contract.
Meanwhile, the mayor's office contends it had the right to buy equipment for a VoIP project under an existing contract with Digicon. Another contract with Digicon provided staffing. Voice over Internet Protocol systems allow calls to be placed through the Internet rather than on traditional phone lines and are considered more efficient.
In her lawsuit, Pratt contends Digicon didn't participate in the bidding process in which IBM emerged as the winner, and therefore shouldn't be allowed to continue work on implementing the new phone system.
"The charter dictates that if the city is to award a contract, it must go only to the highest scoring proposal," Pratt's suit states. "In this case to the severe detriment of the taxpayers of Baltimore City and to the law as set forth in the charter, a lucrative contract has been given to Digicon which not only failed to submit the 'highest scoring' response, but failed to respond at all."
Digicon "received the work by the underhanded, illegal technique of using two preexisting Requirements Contracts ... which were in no way relevant," the lawsuit states.
Pratt said recently she refuses to meet with the mayor's new Chief Information Officer Chris Tonjes until she meets with Rawlings-Blake. She said she has been trying to meet with the mayor for weeks.
"He is not my peer," she said of Tonjes.
Pratt's lawsuit was filed Friday in Baltimore City Circuit Court. She is represented by attorney Charles Bernstein, who works for the law firm of Peter G. Angelos, a prominent Baltimore attorney and the owner of the Orioles.
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." The report was released in September.
Inspector General David N. McClintock also found that the mayor's technology office withheld information from other city officials about the project. For example, the report said 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.
McClintock said in an interview that his probe found no illegalities.
The mayor's technology 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 or subcontractors with Digicon, which has offices in Rockville. One of them was allowed to commit city resources "in a way that financially benefited Digicon."
Administration officials took issue with some of the report's findings and said the equipment was purchased inexpensively. 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.
Rawlings-Blake has "made ethics a top priority of her administration," according to a 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."