Dixon probe begins

Baltimore Sun

State prosecutors have opened an investigation into the Baltimore City Council's computer services contract, ordering city officials to turn over documents detailing how and why the city paid $600,000 to Council President Sheila Dixon's friend for six years.

Acting on a request from State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh's office, a city grand jury issued subpoenas this week to the city's top attorney demanding records from the council, Mayor Martin O'Malley's finance department and the Baltimore Board of Estimates, which oversees city spending.

"We have received subpoenas from the state prosecutor's office," City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler confirmed yesterday. "We will cooperate fully."

According to Tyler, the three subpoenas were delivered to City Hall on Monday, a day after The Sun first reported that Dixon's former campaign chairman, Dale G. Clark, managed the council's computer system between March 2000 and the end of last month. For five of those six years, Clark's company, Ultimate Network Integration, worked and was paid without a contract - even after the city hired another firm in May 2005 to perform the same work.

Tyler would not provide a copy of the subpoenas, but he said they do not indicate a target of the probe. He said the subpoenas demand specific information related to Clark's firm and all documents related to the council's computer services work since 2000.

The city has sought bids for the council's computer services contract four times - rejecting all proposals each time for various technical reasons. Yet Clark continued to get the work.

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 includes Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, O'Malley and two mayoral Cabinet members.

O'Malley and his finance officials said this week that they do not know how Clark continued to be paid by the city without a contract.

The mayor said that he has asked his finance officials to determine why the checks continued but that he is satisfied with Dixon's initial response.

On Friday, in response to questions from The Sun, the council president issued a one-week suspension to her deputy chief of staff, who was responsible for overseeing Clark's work. Dixon also "severely reprimanded" her chief of staff.

Clark stopped working Feb. 28, shortly after The Sun began questioning his employment. Last week, Dixon's spokesman Chris Williams called the entire ordeal a "major oversight."

"It's embarrassing, but it's not a willful act of influence-peddling," he said. "We can't say there's any excuse for our not drafting a contract."

Yesterday, Williams said: "We will be fully cooperating with the state prosecutor's investigation."

The office of the state prosecutor, which handles public corruption cases, may be gathering documents to determine if any city official has violated Maryland's "misconduct in office" provision, a criminal misdemeanor, said Byron Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor.

To prove a violation, prosecutors must show that elected officials or government employees willfully used their positions to violate the law or that they failed to perform their official duties to further a corrupt motive, Warnken said.

"You're using your office in a way that corrupts the public trust," either as an elected official or as a government employee, he said. "That's the most simplistic explanation."

Rohrbaugh said he would neither confirm nor deny the existence of a grand jury investigation.

Reached by phone yesterday afternoon, Clark said he had not received a subpoena.

"Wow," he said. "I don't know anything about that yet."

Clark said that he is confident he did nothing wrong but that such investigations can often "take on a life of their own."

"It takes a toll on you and your family and friends," he said.

Clark's work with the council's computer system dates to 1996, when then-council member Dixon first recommended his company.

His company's role expanded significantly in 2000, soon after Dixon became council president. She signed a contract with Clark, her friend since the 1980s, in February 2000 and obtained board approval the next month.

The deal expired in March 2001, but Clark's work continued. After a Sun article at the time revealed Dixon's relationship to Clark, the council president acknowledged she was wrong for giving him a no-bid contract and for not opening the work to competitive bidding. Clark also officially removed himself as Dixon's campaign chairman after an interview at the time with The Sun.

After failing to award the council computer services contract four times since 2001, the Board of Estimates awarded the job to another firm, Early Morning Software, in May. The company was fired seven months later.

Despite having a $47,000 contract with the new company, the city allowed Clark to remain on the city payroll for the same work, paying him $84,000 from May until Feb. 28.

Dixon officials said Clark was kept on to help Early Morning Software's transition into the job. Donna Stevenson, Early Morning Software's president, said Clark was a costly presence. She accused him of trying to sabotage her firm. Clark denied the accusations.

Williams, Dixon's spokesman, said Stevenson's contract was terminated because of frequent computer system problems that Early Morning Software could not handle.

In a Dec. 29 letter obtained by The Sun, the city's purchasing agent, William B. Irish, told Stevenson that the contract was being terminated because the Mayor's Office of Information Technology was taking over full responsibility for the council's computer system.

The mayor's IT office had been handling much of the council's computer system for the past two years, said Chief Information Officer Elliot Schlanger.

Schlanger's office will perform that support through a contract with TeleCommunications Systems Inc., which uses Union Technologies as a subcontractor. Union Technologies, or Utech, employs Dixon's sister.

The city's Board of Ethics, which meets tomorrow for a regularly scheduled session, is examining Dixon's participation in city contracts awarded to Utech. The city's ethics law requires officials to recuse themselves and to disclose their relatives' employment with companies that do city business. Dixon never abstained from participating and never disclosed her sister's job with Utech until after it was reported in The Sun last month.


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