Administration relies on consultants from Digicon

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came as the two elected officials are battling over control of the modernization and replacement of city government's outdated communications system.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.

"The president got one," said Pratt. "Why didn't I get one?"

She said that her office worked closely with the mayor's information technology staff to conduct a citywide telephone needs assessment. Using that, employees from both offices collaborated in crafting the request for bids for a new phone system, she said. The request went out last June.

Pratt's office planned to ask the city Board of Estimates last week to award a $7.5 million contract to IBM to install Internet phones. But Rawlings-Blake, who like Pratt is a member of the board, asked to defer the decision for three weeks.

The mayor's office says the "routine deferral" was intended to allow the administration time to scrutinize the purchase more fully. O'Doherty said the administration wants to review the cost of the project and has concerns about "outsourcing" the effort to a third party.

Pratt contends that the administration has been attempting to "piecemeal" a phone system from Digicon without subjecting the project to the city's competitive bidding process. The information techonology office has a blanket contract with Digicon that allows it to purchase computer supplies and equipment, although the contract does not specifically mention phones.

The information technology office bought 80 VoIP phones for $20,000 from Digicon in May 2011, which the mayor's office says was part of a pilot program to test if the phones would work with the city's infrastructure. It was part of a larger $218,000 transaction that the mayor's office said included about $55,000 in equipment to support the phones.

Two weeks later, the office paid $441,450 to Digicon for 124 switches "that will provide [VoIP] switch infrastructure for buildings in the downtown Baltimore campus," according to a form signed by information technology employees. The form also noted that "a small number of additional switches may be required" to complete the transition to VoIP phones at City Hall and nearby city office buildings.

Robert Minor, the acting director of the Mayor's Office of Information Technology, said in an email this week that despite the notations on the purchase orders, some of the switches were being used to support computers, not phones.

A previous version of this article did not make clear that a city contract allowing for the purchase of computer equipment was competitively bid and awarded to Digicon Corp. Subsequent purchases of phone-related equipment under that contract were not competitively bid.

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