Contract presents questions for Dixon

Sun reporter

One of the Baltimore contracts that prompted an ethics review of City Council President Sheila Dixon was the subject of contentious hearings in 2004 and 2005 that involved accusations of bid steering.

That contract and others are expected to be on the agenda tonight as the city's Board of Ethics begins examining in closed session potential ethical lapses caused by Dixon's participation in contracts that benefited Union Technologies, the firm that employs her sister.

The ethics panel decided to begin the investigation in the wake of a Sun report two weeks ago on Dixon's actions involving the company at a City Council hearing and during meetings of Baltimore's Board of Estimates.

Dixon had said she abstained whenever Union Technologies had come before the city's spending board for contracts - as is required by the ethics law. But records indicate that Dixon voted three times on the only contract involving the company to come before the board in two years. And, from the start, the contract to provide support for the city's computer network was beset with problems.

The contract "didn't make any sense to me, and it wasn't in the city's best interest," said Robert Dashiell, a Baltimore attorney who represented CMC America, a firm that had lost the contract despite being low bidder. "I think it was fraught with irregularities."

When the contract first came up for a vote in July 2004, such concerns led the city's Board of Estimates to temporarily delay awarding it to the team involving the employer of the City Council president's sister, Janice Dixon.

At the meeting, city finance officials had recommended awarding the three-year deal to TeleCommunications Systems Inc. (TCS), whose $12.87 million bid was the highest of four bidders, according to records.

TCS, a publicly traded company based in Annapolis that had held the previous contract, listed Union Technologies and two other Baltimore-based minority-owned subcontractors as part of its bid team.

The three losing bidders protested. The lowest bidder - with a $9.3 million proposal - was Dashiell's client, CMC America, the U.S. division of a company from India. The other two losing offers were from Baltimore-based Bith Group, which bid $12.85 million and had been TCS' minority subcontractor in the previous contract; and Columbia-based Coleman & Associates, which had bid $12.6 million.

Dashiell and Bith Group President Robert L. Wallace accused officials of formulating a points system that was confusing and subjective and appeared to favor TCS, according to board records of the July 2004 hearing.

City officials never fully explained during the meeting how CMC's bid, which was $3.5 million less than the TCS proposal, could be rejected when the scoring showed minimal technical differences.

"Any way they could to augment or enhance the winner's numbers, they did it," Dashiell said in a recent interview. He said he did not know that Janice Dixon was employed by Union Technologies.

Transcripts of the hearing show that Bith Group's Wallace accused employees with the Mayor's Office of Information Technology of steering the contract to TCS - an allegation that Elliot H. Schlanger, the head of the agency, denied and Wallace could not support with evidence.

"This is a case study on a situation where a contract is being directed to a particular company," Wallace said at the hearing.

He said the mayor's information technology staff was telling TCS employees to "not worry about this contract."

"TCS sent an e-mail to the employees saying that unofficially [they] had been awarded the contract. Before the evaluation process was done," the transcript shows Wallace as saying. "So, there is enough smoke here."

"President Dixon," Wallace is quoted as saying, "I would not make such accusations if I were not confident that they were true."

Dixon demanded evidence and chastised Wallace for making such accusations, saying, according to transcripts, that she knew from experience what it was like to be the subject of inaccurate accusations.

At the time, the U.S. attorney's office was investigating City Council perks and nepotism. In November 2003, Dixon was forced to fire her sister Janice from the council president's payroll after the ethics board ruled that her employment violated ethics law. The federal investigation formally ended in March 2005 without any charges being filed.

Conflicts resurfaced two weeks ago when The Sun learned that Janice Dixon has worked for Union Technologies, also known as Utech, since February 2004. Sheila Dixon was involved in a council hearing this month that was held to examine Comcast of Baltimore's use of minority subcontractors - and she specifically asked about Utech.

The city's ethics law prohibits public officials from participating in "any matter" that involves a sibling's interest or the interest of a relative's employer. The law says officials must recuse themselves from such matters if they know of their sibling's employment and that they must disclose the relative's job in forms filed with the ethics board.

Utech is regulated by the city's Minority and Women's Business Opportunity Office, and its filings list four employees.

Dixon never mentioned her sister's job as operations manager and had not disclosed it on her ethics form until after The Sun's articles this month.

Though she initially said she has abstained from all Board of Estimates votes involving Utech, records show that Dixon became the most vocal board member during the July 2004 hearing. When told of the discrepancy, Dixon's staff said they had erred in not alerting the City Council president to her sister's involvement.

O'Malley has said that he was unaware of Dixon's sister's job and will withhold comment until after the ethics review.

Ultimately, O'Malley made a motion in that July 2004 meeting to reject all of the bids. He chastised Wallace for making allegations without any evidence.

"If there is no evidence to back that up, I think it is a real cruddy thing to do to other people," O'Malley said.

Wallace has not responded to questions submitted to the company.

The Board of Estimates then voted to extend the existing contract with TCS.

Nearly a year later, in May 2005, the board - including Dixon - again voted to extend the contract for $3.6 million. The minority subcontractors listed on the extension: Bith Group, for $1.4 million, and Union Technologies, for $402,409.

After another round of rebidding, the contract came before the board a third time on Nov. 6.

City officials again recommended awarding the contract, now worth $6.2 million, to TCS and its group of minority subcontractors, including $1.4 million to Bith Group and $579,000 to Union Technologies.

The only protest came from Dashiell's client, CMC America, whose bid was $250,000 less.

Dashiell said the system was still flawed and that it appeared that the city was awarding the contract based on criteria that had not been disclosed in the request for proposals.

But William Irish, the city's purchasing director, told the board that CMC did not accumulate the points based on technical expertise and price required to win the contract. Yet CMC was allowed to continue in the process "for the sake of competition," because they were the only other qualified firm, Irish said.

Dixon questioned such logic: "If they did not meet them, why did you invite them?"

Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, the board's fifth member, said, "It seems a little disingenuous to have them thinking that they can win when they cannot."

Irish then said that CMC's score was close enough that the city could have awarded the company the contract if TCS had made disqualifying mistakes.

"That seems like we are making up rules as we go," Pratt said.

Dixon objected to the purchasing department's handling of the contract, "particularly when we had issues a year and a half ago."

Dashiell lodged one last complaint: "I know that the incumbent in any situation most often has an advantage because they have relationships. ... This is just wrong."

The board members then voted. After the four "yes" votes were counted, Dixon voted last.

"Please note that I vote no," she said. "Motion carries."


Ethics board

The Baltimore Board of Ethics administers the city's ethics law, enacted "to guard against undue influence or the appearance of improper influence, and insure public trust in the government," according to its Web site. Four members are appointed by Mayor Martin O'Malley, and the fifth is appointed by the city solicitor, who is appointed by the mayor:

  • Robert L. Bogomolny (chairman), president of the University of Baltimore
  • Paul Fenn, attorney with Conti Fenn & Lawrence LLC
  • Dana Petersen Moore, attorney and partner with Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP
  • Kristen M. Mahoney, Baltimore Police Department's chief of technical services
  • Donald Huskey, deputy city solicitor doug.donovan@baltsun.com
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