Joan Pratt

Baltimore Comptroller Joan Pratt expresses her disagreement with City Solicitor George Nilson's recent written opinion that the purchase of phone-related equipment by the mayor's technology office was appropriate. (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr. / June 25, 2012)

Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake continued to spar Monday over the purchase of phone-related equipment by the mayor's technology office, purchases Pratt says violate city procurement regulations.

Pratt, who has released records documenting the purchase of hundreds of thousands of dollars of phone equipment, said she disagreed with City Solicitor George Nilson's recent written opinion that the transaction was appropriate.

"Mr Nilson can describe this purchase in any way that he wishes, but the fact remains that there was no basis for the Mayor's Office of Information Technology to procure a telephone system outside the charter-mandated process," Pratt said Monday after a meeting of the city's spending board.

"Mr. Nilson cannot make a wrong right simply by saying it's right," she said.

Rawlings-Blake countered that Nilson's opinion had settled the issue.

"The city solicitor is the chief legal officer for the city, and he made an opinion," Rawlings-Blake said. "If [Pratt] disagrees, she has other avenues she can take. But as far as I'm concerned, the legality of the purchase is a closed question."

When reporters pressed Rawlings-Blake on the topic, she said, "You seem obsessed with this" and asked for questions on another topic.

At issue is a purchase made by Rawlings-Blake's technology office of $659,000 worth of phones and other equipment that Pratt says would facilitate a switch-over to an Internet-based phone service. Rawlings-Blake says only about $55,000 of the total purchase was used to buy 80 phones — including some with video touchscreens — and related equipment.

The technology office bought the items from Digicon Corp.'s Rockville office in May and June of last year, at the same time the comptroller's office was seeking bids to overhaul the city's phone system. Pratt says the mayor's technology office worked with her on the bidding process.

The dispute between the two officials came to a head this month when Pratt's office recommended awarding the phone contract to IBM. Rawlings-Blake, who like Pratt is a member of the city's Board of Estimates, asked that a vote on the contract be postponed three weeks.

The comptroller's office has overseen the city's Municipal Telephone Exchange since 1949. Aides to Rawlings-Blake say that her technology office is better positioned to supervise the transition to an Internet-based phone system.

Pratt on Monday reiterated accusations that the technology office attempted to circumvent the formal bidding process by making the phone purchases from Digicon under an existing blanket contract for computer-related equipment.

Nilson, who reviewed the purchase at the mayor's request, noted that the city's blanket contract with Digicon did not specifically mention phones. However, he said, the latest technology, known as "VoIP" or "voice over Internet protocol," has blurred the lines between phones and computer devices, thus making the purchase legitimate.

Pratt disputed his reasoning.

"Mr. Nilson says a computer is a telephone and a telephone is a computer," she said, holding up a VoIP phone in one hand and a laptop in the other. "This is a telephone, and this is a computer."

Pratt said she is contemplating hiring an outside attorney to review the deal. The city's inspector general is still reviewing the matter.

Nilson, who is appointed by the mayor, is in the process of renewing his contract with the city. The City Council on Monday gave preliminary approval to his reappointment.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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