A Baltimore circuit judge on Wednesday dismissed Comptroller Joan M. Pratt's lawsuit that alleged the Rawlings-Blake administration was illegally installing a new municipal phone system.
In an oral ruling, Judge Pamela J. White said she couldn't find any illegal actions in the administration's conduct and noted the Mayor's Office of Information Technology had not installed any new phones since 2011, rendering the suit pointless. White dismissed the suit with prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled.
"These are serious matters," the judge said. "These are serious allegations. These are serious concerns for all of Baltimore's citizens. But they are not legally cognizant in this court at this time. ... I can't see any breach, any violation of the procurement regulations of the Baltimore City Charter."
White also said she didn't believe Pratt should be suing another branch of city government, and reminded the comptroller and City Solicitor George Nilson, who represented the administration, that they all represent one government.
"I don't believe Miss Pratt has any business suing the mayor and City Council," she said. "We all work for the city. We all want what's best for the city."
Pratt and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake have been sparring for months over how to upgrade the city's phone system, leading to a war of words, an investigation by the city's inspector general and a court battle after Pratt sued the city. The comptroller wants the city to award a $7.4 million phones contract to IBM, which won a bidding process supervised by her office.
On Wednesday, Nilson asked White to dismiss the suit, saying that it was inappropriate for Pratt to bring a lawsuit against the city that she has been elected to represent.
"You just can't sue the entity of which you are a part," Nilson said.
After the judge dismissed the case, Nilson said he was "pleased" to hear the judge agree with his arguments. Of upgrading the city's phone system, he said: "Hopefully something will get worked out constructively and collaboratively."
Pratt's lawyer, former city judge Charles Bernstein, who works for the law firm of Peter Angelos, said he and his client were "disappointed."
"We'll have to think about it for a few days and decide what we're doing to do," he said. Pratt declined to comment.
Tension between Pratt and Rawlings-Blake flared in June, when the mayor moved to defer the IBM contract. Pratt accused the mayor of trying to install a phone system without going through the proper bidding process and instead using existing computer equipment and staffing contracts with Digicon Corp. of Herndon, Va.
The city's inspector general investigated those claims and found that the Mayor's Office of Information Technology's purchase of phone and computer equipment contained possible conflicts of interest and missed opportunities for "significant cost savings." Inspector General David N. McClintock also found that the mayor's technology office withheld information from other city officials about the project.
After a recent Board of Estimates meeting, Pratt held up a jumbo check to represent the $2.8 million she says the city has wasted since June on its outdated, expensive phone system. Each month the mayor's office does not approve the IBM contract, the city is wasting $400,000, she contends.
The judge said the dispute should be resolved in City Hall.
"Why are you here in court?" White asked. "Isn't this the stuff that politicians dream of arguing about on the floor of the City Council or Board of Estimates? Why are you here in court?"
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