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City officials outraged by emails in phone controversy

Public OfficialsLocal GovernmentGeorge NilsonVerizonStephanie Rawlings-Blake

Baltimore elected officials said Friday they were outraged by an inspector general's report that found the Mayor's Office of Information Technology and a former deputy mayor withheld information from and misled city officials about a controversial project to install nearly $675,000 in phone and computer equipment.

"I am extremely concerned if it happens to be the case that the administration is engaged in misleading top city officials," said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke. "If it proves to be the case, I will say that I am deeply concerned about this approach to government and to life.

"This is the heart of governance here," she added.

The city's inspector general detailed a number of problems surrounding efforts by the mayor's technology office to upgrade the city's phone system. The report documented emails written by former Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty and former Chief Information Officer Rico J. Singleton in which they discussed withholding information on the project — in one instance denying its existence to City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young.

The report also found possible conflicts of interest and missed opportunities for "significant cost savings." Inspector General David N. McClintock looked into purchases made by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's technology office after Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, whose office had initiated a similar undertaking, accused the administration of breaking procurement rules and wasting taxpayers' money.

McClintock said in an interview that he did not find any illegal actions but that he would continue to investigate the mayor's technology office. He said that the problems outlined in the report were "contained to the mayor's office of information technology" and that he hoped city officials would learn from the report and improve practices.

"No government is perfect. There's always room for improvement," McClintock said.

The mayor's office has denied Pratt's claims and disputed parts of the inspector general's report. The administration also outlined several steps it has taken to tighten controls over procurement and to prevent conflicts of interest.

Thomaskutty, who has since left the administration, was referred to only as "deputy mayor" in the inspector general's report, and his name was redacted from emails. But City Council members, administration officials and the comptroller identified him in interviews.

Young believes that Thomaskutty "misled" him about the status of the project, according to Young's spokesman Lester Davis. "He's extremely disappointed," Davis said.

But Davis said Thomaskutty called Young on Friday and indicated that he believed he was misrepresented in the report. Young "still believes 90 percent of his interactions with Thomaskutty were aboveboard," Davis said.

Thomaskutty did not respond to requests for comment.

The emails contained in McClintock's report depict administrators in the mayor's technology office intent on overhauling the city's phone system — traditionally controlled by the city's comptroller — and eager to keep others from knowing about their actions.

"This is extremely bad for the city," Singleton wrote in one email about Pratt's office requesting bids for a new phone system. "I need you to advise on how to handle and prevent this debacle from occurring. Baltimore will be a laughing stock." (The email recipient is redacted.)

In another email, Singleton wrote: "We should be done with half the city before they get around to awarding a bid."

Singleton could not be reached to comment.

When Young's office learned of phone-related purchases by the mayor's technology office through a Verizon representative and contacted Singleton to inquire about the phone system and potential cost savings, Singleton wrote for advice on how to respond.

"I'm not sure why Verizon went running their mouth," Singleton wrote.

A deputy mayor — identified by city officials as Thomaskutty — responded that Singleton should say, in part: "We do not have a pilot project underway and I do not have a cost-saving analysis."

"Those are my thoughts on your response (basically downplay)," he wrote.

Singleton then wrote to Young's office: "We do not have a pilot project underway and I do not have a cost-saving analysis."

A spokesman for the mayor's office emphasized that those officials are no longer with the city.

City Councilman Brandon Scott, in reading those emails, said it seemed that Thomaskutty told Singleton to "basically lie to the comptroller and city council president."

"Ultimately, it's a great thing for the city he's no longer with us," Scott said, referring to Thomaskutty.

Singleton resigned in February after an audit in New York detailed ethics violations while he worked in that state's government, including negotiating a job for his girlfriend and soliciting a job for himself with a software vendor that was awarded a major contract.

For months, Rawlings-Blake and Pratt have sparred over the purchase of phone-related equipment by the mayor's 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.

Pratt said Friday she was pleased that the report seemed to validate her concerns about duplicative efforts and potentially failing to get the lowest prices, but she was disappointed that the inspector general did not take issue with Nilson's opinion that the mayor's technology office had the authority to purchase telephone hardware.

"In my opinion, the city solicitor's opinion was false," Pratt said. "At the time he rendered his opinion, he did not have all the facts. Mr. McClintock couldn't help but find that procedures were not followed, but I can see why he didn't go further than that. If you're appointed by the mayor and you report to the city solicitor, where is the objectivity and the independence?"

The new chief information officer, Chris Tonjes, said Thursday he plans to work collaboratively with Pratt's office to implement the new phone system. Even so, Tonjes said he believed the purchases from Digicon were cost-effective.

Pratt said Tonjes has introduced himself but she worried that "these are new actors reading from the same script."

"The citizens are outraged," Pratt said, citing calls to her office. "We're wasting city money."

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

The mayor's 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.

In a statement, the mayor's office contended that the technology purchases were "neither out of the ordinary nor in violation of law," citing the opinion by the city solicitor. The administration says it has worked to "significantly tighten controls" on the city's procurement system and is expanding the number of IT staffing firms with which it contracts from two to as many as 50.

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.

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

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Public OfficialsLocal GovernmentGeorge NilsonVerizonStephanie Rawlings-Blake
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