September 29, 2012
The purchase of Voice over Internet Protocol telephones and related equipment by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration may not have been illegal. That's the kindest conclusion one can draw from a report on the matter by the city's inspector general, David N. McClintock, which otherwise notes that the process was inefficient and rife with possible conflicts of interest and deception. But it is to that slender reed of vindication that Ms. Rawlings-Blake is clinging as she continues to avoid taking real responsibility for the mess and fails to provide a path forward to responsibly handle a needed upgrade of the city's communications technology.
City officials have been talking for years about switching from traditional telephones to VoIP technology, which is common in the business world and offers significant cost savings. Comptroller Joan Pratt's office, by long-standing tradition, has handled the city's phone network, and her staff had been working on a plan to switch to VoIP since 2008 — a fact acknowledged in Rawlings-Blake budget documents. But the mayor's former head of information technology, Rico Singleton, thought he could do the job faster and cheaper. In 2011, with the blessing of the deputy mayor who oversaw information technology, he began a pilot project to prove it without the knowledge or consent of Ms. Pratt's office. And rather than seeking bids specific to this project, the Mayor's Office of Information Technology bought VoIP equipment through an existing blanket contract for computer peripherals.
That contract had been competitively bid, and City Solicitor George Nilson concluded that the purchase was proper because the phones are technologically akin to computer peripherals. Mr. McClintock did not dispute that conclusion.
However, it is clear from Mr. McClintock's report that the phone pilot project was conducted in secret and that information about its scope was withheld from the comptroller's office. He found that some of the city contract workers who headed up the effort had been provided by the same information technology company that sold the equipment and that any efforts to check whether other companies could provide the hardware for cheaper, as required under the blanket contract, were at best perfunctory. The inspector general found that Mr. Singleton, at the behest of a deputy mayor, told City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young that the project didn't exist.
Furthermore, it is also clear from the report that since the controversy about VoIP phones erupted this summer, the mayor has consistently under-represented the cost of the pilot project. She insisted that the city had only spent $55,262 on the project, which was the cost of the phones themselves. But Mr. McClintock's report indicates that the total cost, including ancillary equipment, totaled nearly $675,000, and that doesn't count the $135,535 paid to the city contractors who headed up the VoIP pilot project. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in other costs incurred by the Mayor's Office of Information Technology during that period should also be considered part of the project, Mr. McClintock wrote.
Yet to read the statement released by the mayor in response to the report, you would get no sense that anything was amiss and, to the contrary, that Ms. Rawlings-Blake had been the victim of malicious and repeated false accusations about her administration's handling of the matter.
For example, the mayor's statement claims that the inspector general had found that "all VOIP-phone equipment was purchased under a competitively-bid contract and included an additional process for price quotes among three vendors at the time of actual purchase." It leaves out mention of Mr. McClintock's finding that in one case, the city had given two vendors other than Digicon less than 24 hours to come up with price quotes, and that in others, the process was not followed at all. It quotes the report as noting that contract employees, like those from Digicon, did not have purchasing authority and that "requisitions were made at the direction of City employees and their supervisors, and individually approved by the appointed director of the agency." But it leaves out Mr. McClintock's concern that those approvals were pro forma ratifications of the contract employees' recommendations.
To her credit, Ms. Rawlings-Blake says she is working to substantially expand the pool of companies from which the information technology department hires contract employees. Mr. Singleton was pushed out of his job earlier this year after reports surfaced about unethical conduct in his previous job, and an information technology chief of staff who worked on the project has also resigned. It is also worth noting that Ms. Rawlings-Blake hired Mr. McClintock in the first place and has encouraged his aggressive and thorough investigations into possible wrongdoing in her administration. And Mr. McClintock's report includes no evidence that the mayor was involved in any of this.
To her discredit, Ms. Rawlings-Blake has treated criticism about the VoIP project as nothing more than a petty turf war with Ms. Pratt or a witch hunt in the press. Mr. McClintock's report definitively shows it was more than that. It was a massive duplication of effort that has, if anything, set back the city's effort to implement a new phone system that would likely save taxpayers millions a year. Ms. Rawlings-Blake's reaction to the report only makes matters worse. She needs to swallow her pride, meet with Ms. Pratt, and initiate an open, honest and transparent effort to get a new phone system at the best price.
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