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City seeks to block questioning of former deputy mayor in phone suit

Justice SystemConservationGeorge NilsonPublic Officials

The city's lawyer has filed paperwork to block a former deputy mayor and the administration's technology chief from answering questions in a lawsuit over a proposed overhaul of the municipal telephone system.

City Solicitor George Nilson is asking a judge for a protective order to prevent former Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty and current Chief Information Officer Chris Tonjes from answering questions from a lawyer for Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt.

Pratt filed a lawsuit in October to stop Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's technology office from installing a new phone system for city offices, alleging that the administration used an "underhanded, illegal technique" to bypass the competitive bidding process. Pratt said IBM should be awarded a $7.4 million contract because the company went through a bidding process conducted by her agency.

Nilson said he intervened to try to prevent the men from being questioned because he believes Pratt's suit will be dismissed and the depositions would waste city time and resources. Nilson said he is representing Thomaskutty, who left City Hall this year to work for Mercy Medical Center, because the deposition pertains to his work as a city official.

"It would be a complete waste of the city's resources for it to respond to interrogatories, provide a document production, and defend depositions of high-ranking City officials — one current, one former — before this court decides on the Motion to Dismiss," Nilson wrote in legal documents filed recently.

He cited a letter written by Circuit Judge Jeffrey M. Geller that concluded that Pratt has failed to establish "the likelihood that the Plaintiff will succeed on the merits."

Pratt's lawyer, Charles G. Bernstein, a former city judge who works for Orioles owner Peter Angelos' law firm, is also seeking documents from Thomaskutty and Tonjes. The documents deal with the hiring and firing of former Chief Information Officer Rico J. Singleton; the purchase and installation of voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP, telephones, and all documents dealing with Digicon Corp., a city vendor.

Nilson has also filed motions arguing that Pratt has no right to sue and seeking to have Bernstein's appearance in the case stricken.

Asked for comment, Bernstein called all of the motions "totally frivolous."

Pratt and Rawlings-Blake have been sparring for months over who should upgrade the city's phone system, leading to a war of words, an investigation by the city inspector general and now a court battle.

Tension between Pratt and Rawlings-Blake flared in June, when the mayor moved to defer action on the contract with IBM and Pratt accused her of trying to install a phone system without going through the proper bidding process.

Meanwhile, the mayor's office contended that it had the right to buy equipment for a VoIP pilot project under an existing contract with Digicon Corp. VoIP systems allow calls to be placed through the Internet rather than traditional phone lines and are considered more efficient.

Baltimore elected officials were outraged in September when the inspector general reported that Singleton and Thomaskutty withheld information from and misled city officials about an admininistration project to install nearly $675,000 in phone and computer equipment.

The report detailed a number of problems surrounding those efforts. It also revealed emails written by Thomaskutty and 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."

Geller has not said when he will rule on the motions.

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Justice SystemConservationGeorge NilsonPublic Officials
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