Dixon steered work to ex-aide

For the past six years Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon has steered government work worth at least $600,000 to her former campaign chairman, most of the time without a written contract.

Since becoming council president in December 1999, Dixon has continually authorized Dale G. Clark to manage the council's computer system. But records obtained by The Sun show that Clark has worked without a contract since the lapse of his first no-bid deal - crafted by Dixon and authorized by the Board of Estimates - in March 2001."Dale Clark did not have a contract to perform this work," Dixon's spokesman Chris Williams acknowledged Friday. "It's embarrassing, but it's not a willful act of influence-peddling. ... We can't say there's any excuse for our not drafting a contract."

City procurement rules require that all contracts over $5,000 be approved by the five-member Board of Estimates, which is chaired by Dixon and controlled by Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Williams said that Dixon has suspended her deputy chief of staff, Carolyn Blakeney, for one week without pay because she is responsible for overseeing the council computer contract. Dixon also "severely reprimanded" her chief of staff, Beatrice Tripps, Williams said.

Clark was Dixon's campaign chairman from early 1996 to April 6, 2001.

The office's admitted breach of city procurement rules comes as Dixon faces ethics board scrutiny of her participation in city contracts awarded to a firm that employs her sister.

This is the second time that Clark's company has caused problems for Dixon.

In 2001, when questioned by The Sun, Dixon said she was wrong for giving Clark's company, Ultimate Network Integration, the initial contract a year earlier without seeking competitive bids. But Clark's employment since then has continued at a payment rate that exceeds Dixon's $80,000 salary.

Four times, the city sought bids for the council computer contract - rejecting all bidders each time for various technical reasons.

The city's fifth attempt to bid the work finally succeeded in May when the Board of Estimates rejected a proposal from Clark and awarded a $47,000 council computer contract to Early Morning Software of Baltimore.

But even that did not remove Clark's company from the city payroll. It has earned $84,000 since May - nearly doubling the authorized spending for Early Morning Software - to do the same work.

Clark's job in the council president's office ended Feb. 28. His departure coincided with The Sun's recent questions about his work. "It smells very, very, very bad," said Bobbie Walton, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. "Maybe Dixon should be sent to her room to write 500 times, `I will not violate procurement laws.'"

When asked by The Sun, Dixon's office first attempted but failed to find proof of a contract with Clark, eventually saying one does not exist.

City finance officials and a search of Board of Estimates minutes turned up only the first 12-month contract approved in March 2000 for $39,900. The board authorized an increase eight months later but did not alter the deal's length.

Since March 2001, when the contract ended, the company has received $525,000 in work without a contract, according to city finance records.

"We would prefer to have a contract, obviously," said Baltimore finance director Edward Gallagher.

Dixon's spokesman, Williams, called the lack of a contract a "major oversight."

He said Ultimate Network Integration was kept on since last May - despite losing its bid for the work - to ease winning bidder Early Morning Software's transition into the job. Williams said Clark's experience required him to remain because the council was launching a new service to post legislation online.

The council president's staff continued to authorize Clark's services for the past five years without a contract for "expedience," Williams said.

"He built the council's network from the ground up," Williams added.

Clark was kept on after the contract was awarded to another firm because "he had the institutional understanding" from having worked for the council "for a long time," Williams said.

But Early Morning Software President Donna Stevenson said Clark's presence was a costly distraction. She said Clark frequently tried to sabotage her firm. "We would get calls in the middle of the night that someone had unplugged the server," said Stevenson, adding that her employees pegged the problem to Clark. Clark denied Stevenson's accusations. Despite the extensive efforts to find a contractor, city purchasing officials fired Early Morning Software in December.

Williams said the firm's contract was terminated because the council's computer system was suffering frequent crashes.

Early Morning Software "was brought in and spoken to, and they were not able to help us get through the day," Williams said.

The Dec. 29 termination letter from the city's purchasing agent, William B. Irish, states only that the contract was ended because the Mayor's Office of Information Technology was set to take over the council's computer network.

Clark's experience with the council dates to 1996 when then-Councilwoman Dixon recommended him. Back then, his annual pay averaged about $10,500. At the time, he charged $95 per hour. The council could have hired someone to do Clark's job for $72.50 an hour under a city contract held by the Mayor's Office of Information Technology.

Since Dixon was elected council president in 1999, the average annual payments to Clark's company have soared to $100,000.

Baltimore Chief Information Officer Elliot Schlanger said his agency has been performing most of the computer support to the council for nearly two years. He said adding the council's 71 computer users to his agency's workload does not add additional costs.

Clark said he - and at times one or two other employees - were responsible for responding to a broad range of requests for computer help from council staff and members, as well as performing network design and administration tasks. Several elected council members said Clark was a fixture who was always available to assist.

Schlanger's agency is now performing the council computer support with the assistance of its longtime contractor, TeleCommunications Systems Inc. - the company whose team of subcontractors includes Union Technologies, the small firm that employs Dixon's sister, Janice M. Dixon.

The city's ethics board is reviewing Dixon's participation in several matters that involved Union Technologies. Records examined by The Sun show that Dixon voted three times on a contract in which Union Technologies was listed as a subcontractor - even though ethics law prohibits public officials from participating in "any matter" that involves a sibling's interest or the interest of a relative's employer.

Until questioned about the matter last month by The Sun, Dixon also had failed to follow regulations requiring her to have disclosed that her sister works for Union Technologies, also known as Utech.

The city's Minority and Women's Business Opportunity Office stripped Utech last month of its official minority certification, which permits it to be hired as a subcontractor to help companies meet the city's rules on hiring minorities and women.

The business opportunity office refused to renew Utech's certification because its investigators found that Utech's office on the 27th floor of 111 S. Calvert St. was only a mailbox and a phone number.

Clark's Ultimate Network Integration has the same set-up at the same address, Clark said. In previous bids for the council contract, Clark's company had listed Utech as a minority contractor, but Clark said Utech never performed any work for him under his arrangement with the council president's office.

Clark's relationship to Dixon has long been known to companies that sought to win the council's computer contract.

In the 2002 bid process, purchasing officials said Snell Enterprises of Columbia, a Department of Defense contractor, was the best of five bidders. The board then rejected Snell's sole qualified proposal because the estimated costs in the contract were suddenly determined to "exceed council's budget."

"That was the last effort we made to do business with Baltimore City," said Ira Snell, the company's president. He said he was surprised by the rejection because Dixon had "expressed excitement."

"That's why it was disturbing to hear that it fell through," said Snell, adding that he was aware of Dixon's affiliation with Clark.

Another company, Sysnet America of Prince George's County, was surprised to be rejected in March 2004 because of a problem with the solicitation in the city's bid. Harold Whitt, Sysnet's president, said his company works with federal agencies and that the Baltimore council job was its first attempt to win local government work.

Whitt said he was aware of Dixon's relationship with Clark. "We caught wind of the fact that there is some sort of invisible criteria with the council," Whitt said.

He said the city never responded to his requests to find out why his firm was rejected. "It's kind of scary," Whitt said. "We are waiting to see if the playing field does become level again."

Later that year, Early Morning Software's president encountered her own frustration, which spilled over into public view a year before her company eventually won the contract.

At the July 2004 Board of Estimates meeting, Stevenson protested the decision to reject all bids for what was the fourth time.

When Stevenson began to explain her protest, Dixon refused to let her present her case.

"That was rejected, it is going back out for bid," Dixon said, according to transcripts.

"Why are we not going to find out what the basis of that rejection was?" Stevenson asked.

"The board took the recommendation of purchasing to reject it and put it back out to bid," Dixon said.

"Under what basis?" Stevenson asked.

Dixon did not answer, and the board carried on with another contract. Toward the meeting's end, Stevenson asked to be heard again.

"Madam President," Stevenson said. "I wanted it on record to understand, because there have always been issues with this particular contract."

According to transcripts, Dixon cut her off, referred her to finance director Gallagher and ended the meeting.