More than two dozen people working as consultants in the Mayor's Office of Information Technology are employees of Rockville-based Digicon Corp. — the company from which the office bought hundreds of thousands of dollars of phone-related equipment under a no-bid deal, city documents show.
City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt said Wednesday the purchases raise concerns given the large number of Digicon employees working for the technology office. The office bought more than $650,000 in equipment from Digicon last year as Pratt was seeking bids on a multimillion-dollar contract to convert the city's phones to a digital system.
Pratt has accused the technology office of attempting to dodge competitive bidding requirements by buying phones and related supplies from Digicon. The company beat out other bidders in 2006 to win a contract to sell computer equipment to the city. Phone-related equipment was purchased under Digicon's contract and was not competitively bid.
"The administration is violating the procurement process," Pratt said after Wednesday's meeting of the city spending board, adding that the purchases "speak to the integrity" of the administration.
But Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake defended her technology office, calling the transactions proper and demanding an apology from Pratt.
"The allegation has no factual or legal merit," Rawlings-Blake said as Pratt sat nearby. "I welcome an apology." The mayor's chief spokesman said the technology office has a standing contract with Digicon that allows it to make purchases without bidding.
The exchange came as the two elected officials are battling over control of the modernization and replacement of city government's outdated communications system.
Pratt says running the phone system has been a key function of the comptroller's office since the 1940s, and she is prepared to oversee the transition to an Internet-based phone system. Aides to Rawlings-Blake say the mayor's technology office would do a better job, since it already manages the city's computers and Internet access.
Both the city solicitor's office and the inspector general are reviewing the Digicon purchases.
After inquiries from The Baltimore Sun, Pratt's office on Wednesday released documents showing that the city has been paying more than two dozen Digicon employees as consultants in the information technology office. The city pays more than $200,000 a month for their salaries and thousands of dollars more for cell phones, retention bonuses and a van for them, according to the documents.
Most of the consultants work as programmers and data base administrators. Damien Sharpe was hired as the technology office's chief of staff while a Digicon contractor, said mayoral spokesman Ian Brennan. He has subsequently become a city employee, Brennan said.
The various divisions of the information technology office employ about 200 people; the consultants work alongside about 45 of them who specialize in computer and Internet issues.
Ryan O'Doherty, the mayor's chief spokesman, later confirmed the technology office currently employs 25 Digicon consultants at a cost of about $2.5 million annually. Digicon consultants have worked for the city for at least four years, and other agencies also employ outside contractors, he said.
He stressed that Digicon consultants played no role in the purchase of Digicon products.
"There is no contractor in a supervisory position that has any influence in the decision process for procuring Cisco phones and/or any other equipment," O'Doherty said in an email. "All procurement goes through the City purchasing process."
He said Rawlings-Blake strongly feels that the Mayor's Office of Information Technology is best-equipped to supervise the city's transition to Internet-based telephones, also known as "voice over internet protocol" or "VoIP" phones. He says the technology office better understands the city's computer system, and is more technologically savvy than the Municipal Telephone Exchange, which is overseen by the comptroller.
"Look at their web site and look at ours," O'Doherty said, noting that the mayor's more modern-looking page was created by the information technology office.
Pratt says that her office would hire consultants to supervise the telephone project and that the chief of the Municipal Telephone Exchange, which has fallen under the comptroller's office since 1949, is an expert in managing large phone systems.
She has repeatedly complained in recent days of a lack of transparency around the administration's phone purchases. She says she first learned about a month ago that the information technology office had purchased scores of the Internet-based phones, and other equipment needed to make the phones function.
Pratt accused the information technology office Wednesday of attempting to hide the Digicon purchases from her. She noted that touchscreen video phones, purchased from Digicon, were given to other high-ranking officials, such as Rawlings-Blake and City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" "Young, but not her.