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Comptroller accuses mayor of illegal $659,000 deal to purchase video phones

Technology IndustryGeorge NilsonIBMStarbucks Corp.

NOTE: To read an update to this story with a more complete response from the mayor's office, click here.

Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt on Wednesday accused Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her former Information Technology Director Rico Singleton of cutting an illegal $659,000 side deal to install high-tech video phones and related equipment in City Hall offices. 

"Under the mayor's direction, Mr. Rico Singleton, who was found by the auditor of the state of New York to have violated procurement rules through side deals with vendors, took the same illegal actions in the city of Baltimore with the approval of the mayor," Pratt said at the Board of Estimates meeting. "Rico Singleton violated the city charter in several ways."  

Pratt said that Singleton, using funds set aside for an IBM computer contract, purchased Cicso 9971 desktop phones that can cost about $1,000 each and allow for video chatting. The item never went before the city's spending panel and infringed upon her authority, as comptroller, over telephone-related purchases, she said. 

"None of the items of the contract allow for the purchase of telephone equipment," Pratt said. 

Pratt said she requested information from the mayor's office to find out how many phones were purchased and in which offices they were installed. She said she requested to meet with the mayor about the issue but was ignored. 

"You told an untruth and said you didn't know the equipment was installed, and you did because it was on your desk," Pratt told the mayor. 

Rawlings-Blake remained calm during the accusations and sipped a Starbucks coffee. 

"I'm very proud of the work [The Mayor's Office of Information Technology] has done, saving taxpayers money," Rawlings-Blake said. 

"They're not saving money," Pratt responded. 

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he received one of the video phones in his office but didn't ask for it. 

"I didn't request it, but it was in my office," he said. 

City Solicitor George Nilson said he didn't believe any illegal action had taken place but would take a look at Pratt's documents and evidence at a later date. 

"I don't see any charter violation at all," he said. 

Nilson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon. 

Pratt's accusations came as Rawlings-Blake asked to postpone for three weeks approval of $7.4 million telephone communications contract with IBM that Pratt alleged usurped her office's authority. 

After the meeting, Pratt refused to make additional comments, because she said the mayor had agreed to meet with her. 

Mayoral spokesman Ian Brennan said the administration was puzzled by Pratt's comments. 

"The mayor requested a routine deferment of the item, and we are not sure why such a routine request generated any controversy," he said. 

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

Luke.Broadwater@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/lukebroadwater 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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