"You told an untruth and said you didn't know the equipment was installed, and you did because it was on your desk," Pratt said as Rawlings-Blake calmly sipped a cup of coffee.

Since then, Pratt has continued to criticize the deal, providing reporters with documents and, for the first time in her decade and a half in elected office, has publicly and repeatedly criticized a mayor.

Rawlings-Blake has stressed that a report issued by City Solicitor George Nilson says that her technology office did not violate the law.

In his opinion, Nilson says that the technology office was authorized to purchase the equipment under an existing contract with Digicon Corp. The city has bought computer equipment from Digicon's Rockville office since 2010 and has clearance to buy items from Cisco, among other brands, under the contract.

The high-tech phones blur the line between phones and computers, Nilson wrote in his letter. Although phones aren't specifically mentioned in the city's contract with Digicon, they could be considered computer accessories or infrastructure, which are approved, he wrote.

Nilson noted that Digicon won its city contract, and subsequent renewals, through a competitive bidding process, and that there was no need for the city to seek additional bids unless the city could get significant savings. He argued that because the purchases of phones and related equipment for a "maximum of $55,262" constituted such a small portion of the city's $3.4 million contract with Digicon, additional bids wouldn't yield such savings.

Four independent VoIP experts who reviewed the city's purchasing documents identified more than $500,000 spent on Cisco phones and other equipment that would be necessary for a VoIP system — an expense they said suggests a broader effort than a pilot program. Pratt has questioned purchases under two orders totaling $659,000.

"It's really not a pilot program," said Arthur Olshansky, who designs phone and other computer systems at Federal Hill Solutions in Baltimore. "It looks like a whole new system."

The phone experts said that if the 124 switches were intended to just support computers and other equipment, they would not need the Power over Ethernet technology, which adds as much as $800 to the cost of each switch.

"It's putting PoE throughout the whole network. The only reason you'd be doing that is you would be preparing to put phones everywhere," said Todd Bernard, co-owner of InBand Networks in Elkridge and a certified Cisco expert.

Bernard, whose company has supervised the installation of VoIP phone systems for Howard County, among other local governments, said the switches contain enough ports to hook up more than 4,000 phones. He also noted the technology office bought more than $27,000 in servers that are identified by Cisco as being part of the bundle for VoIP.

"With everything else that was purchased here, this is the only reason you'd be buying that," Bernard said.

But Minor, the acting chief information officer, said in a letter that the switches have been used for other purposes in the year since they were bought.

O'Doherty, the mayor's spokesman, said the technology office needed to purchase switches for other reasons and decided it would be cost effective to get ones that could eventually be used for a phone system. The switches can support other brands of phones, including IBM.

Nilson, who is appointed by the mayor, said officials in the mayor's technology office and the purchasing department informed him that the total cost of phones and related equipment was $55,262.

"I am relying on them," said Nilson.

Nilson said he was not familiar with the purchasing document that the purchase of $441,450 of switches was for infrastructure for the VoIP project. The document was distributed by Pratt to reporters last month.

If the purchases had constituted "a necessary element" of the phone upgrade contract, Nilson said, "I would have stopped and taken a much harder look at those numbers."

But he said he believes the information the technology office gave him is correct. "I relied on the information that was given to me, which I still think was accurate," he said.

The VoIP experts said it is common for phone and information technology departments, both in government and the private sector, to have a power struggle over the new phone technology. Many companies and governments have merged their phone and technology offices with the advent of the phones, they say.