Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday that Comptroller Joan M. Pratt's use of free legal services from Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos' law firm represents a breach of the city ethics code — an accusation vehemently rejected by Pratt.
The Angelos firm is handling without charge Pratt's lawsuit against the administration's efforts to install a new city phone system that Pratt says illegally circumvented the competitive bidding process and wasted taxpayer dollars.
Addressing reporters after Wednesday's Board of Estimates meeting, the mayor contended that Pratt's acceptance of the free legal help violates the ethics code, which generally prohibits elected officials from taking gifts from people who do business with their agency.
"The law is very clear that it's unacceptable to accept large gifts from people doing business with the city," Rawlings-Blake said.
Pratt said the legal work is for the comptroller's office and the people of Baltimore, not her personally.
"I am actually saving the taxpayers money," Pratt said. She said City Solicitor George A. Nilson informed her that he represents the mayor — not the comptroller — and therefore the city would need to hire outside counsel for her suit.
"I am grateful that Mr. Angelos is representing the comptroller's office and the citizens of Baltimore pro bono," Pratt said.
The comptroller's lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order against the Rawlings-Blake administration to prevent the Mayor's Office of Information Technology from using existing contracts with Digicon Corp. to install a Voice over Internet Protocol phone system. The administration and Pratt's office have both been working to install such a system, leading to a City Hall turf war.
Pratt said she does not believe Angelos — who in addition to owning the Orioles and a law firm owns multiple properties — currently does business with the comptroller's office. She said she would report the legal services as a gift on her ethics forms and recuse herself if any matters involving Angelos should come before the Board of Estimates.
Pratt added that Rawlings-Blake routinely receives gifts that she reports on her ethics forms. The mayor's office has said the gifts she received comply with the law.
Pratt's attorney, Charles Bernstein of the Angelos firm, also rejected the idea that accepting the legal work was an ethics violation. He said Pratt would not vote on any matters involving Angelos.
Nilson declined to comment when asked if accepting the legal work violates the ethics code. "It's for the ethics board to decide such an issue," he said.
Ethics board director Avery Aisenstark did not respond to a request for comment.
The Board of Estimates, which is controlled by Rawlings-Blake, rejected a $7.4 million contract with IBM for a new phone system in July. Pratt said that IBM was the lowest bidder and should have been awarded the contract.
"The sooner we start the implementation of the Voice over Internet Protocol [system], the citizens and the city will realize tremendous savings — millions of dollars," Pratt said.
An investigation by the city's inspector general into the Rawlings-Blake administration's purchase of nearly $675,000 in phone and computer equipment found possible conflicts of interest and missed opportunities for "significant cost savings." The report was released in September.
Inspector General David N. McClintock also found that information was withheld from other city officials about the project. For example, the report said, a former deputy mayor directed another city employee to mislead City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young by denying that the mayor's office was taking steps to upgrade the city's phone system.
McClintock said in an interview that his probe found no illegalities.
Fred Guy, director of the University of Baltimore's Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics, said the acceptance of the legal work appears to be permissible, so long as Pratt doesn't vote on matters involving Angelos.
"If she publicly recuses herself and explains the situation to the citizens, I don't think there's an issue," said Guy, who has done ethics training for the city. "The comptroller is saving the city money by using Angelos. That said, if she can avoid even the perception of a conflict of interest, that's preferable."
Pratt, who has been comptroller since the 1990s, said she plans to meet with Rawlings-Blake's new chief information officer, Chris Tonjes, on Thursday. She provided a series of letters she sent Rawlings-Blake asking for a meeting, but said she was rebuffed.
"I have always called the mayors previously and asked that we meet and they have obliged me a meeting and we have reconciled our differences," Pratt said of former mayors Sheila Dixon and Martin O'Malley.
Rawlings-Blake said Pratt's complaints that the mayor wouldn't meet with her are a "smoke screen."
"I don't do those details. She doesn't do those details," Rawlings-Blake said. "Her team and my team need to get together and iron it out."
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