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Dixon voted on contracts with sister's employer

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Despite assertions to the contrary, Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon did not abstain from voting on city government contracts awarded to a minority-owned firm that employs her sister.

Board of Estimates records show that Dixon voted three times in the past two years on a contract that ultimately awarded nearly $1 million of subcontracts to her sister's employer.

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.

In all of the discussions about the competitively bid contract - in which Dixon was one of the most active participants - the council president never disclosed her sister's employment, according to transcripts.

Dixon's first two votes favored her sister's company by twice extending a city contract in which the company received work as a subcontractor. In November, when the contract came up for a permanent renewal before the five-member spending board, Dixon participated in the discussion. Four of the board members voted "yes," assuring the renewal; Dixon cast the lone "no" vote.

Dixon says she does not believe she has violated the city's ethics law in her actions on either the board or the council.

On Monday, The Sun disclosed that Dixon participated last Thursday in a council committee hearing held to determine whether Comcast of Baltimore has honored its cable television contract by hiring minority subcontractors.

At the hearing, Dixon advocated for several firms, including the company that employs her sister, Janice Dixon. But the president never disclosed her sibling's job at the hearing or in the financial disclosure form that public officials must file with the city's ethics board. The form requires officials to disclose relatives who work for companies that do business with the city or that are regulated by the city.

Her sister's employer, Union Technologies, is regulated by the city's Minority and Women's Business Opportunity Office, which has certified the firm as a "minority and women business enterprise" since 2000. The certification renders the company eligible to be hired as a subcontractor to help companies meet the city's rules on hiring minorities and women.

Dixon amended her financial disclosure form Monday after The Sun disclosed the potential conflict. Dixon's new report says that her sister has worked for Union Technologies, also known as Utech, since February 2004 as "operations manager." The company has four permanent employees, according to city records.

Janice Dixon worked part time for the company before that date, according to Dixon's chief of staff, Beatrice Tripps. But Tripps said she did not know for exactly how long.

Neither the council president's sister nor Utech's president, Mildred E. Boyer, has returned multiple phone messages since last Thursday.

Comcast officials said the cable company began its relationship with Utech in 2003 and stopped using the fiber-optic cable firm in November, three months before last week's council hearing.

At the hearing, Dixon asked why Comcast had stopped employing certain minority firms and specifically named her sister's employer. Comcast officials did not explain why the relationship ended with Utech either during the hearing or in a subsequent interview.

In interviews this week, Sheila Dixon denied violating the ethics law despite filing the amended disclosure form. She said she had mentioned several companies during the Comcast hearing, not just Utech, and she insisted she has regularly abstained from voting on contracts involving Utech at the Board of Estimates meetings, where she serves as chairwoman.

"I abstain when they come before the Board of Estimates," Dixon said three times in an interview Tuesday.

Dixon's chief of staff was more definitive: "If there are any contracts that have come before the board where Utech has been the prime or subcontractor, the council president has abstained," Tripps said.

But, according to a review of 2004 and 2005 board minutes by The Sun, Dixon did not abstain from voting on the city's information technology contract to TeleCommunication Systems Inc. (TCS), which listed Utech as its subcontractor on board documents.

Tripps later altered the council president's assertion that she had abstained. "If we were aware, the president would have abstained," Tripps said.

Sheila Dixon's spokesman, Chris Williams, said yesterday that Dixon was not aware that Utech's official company name was Union Technologies, which is how it is listed on the board's agendas in 2005. The 2004 board agenda, however, lists the company as "Utech."

"This was definitely a case that our office didn't know the difference between [Union Technologies] and Utech," Williams said. "The reason the president wasn't aware is that the staff didn't catch it. We didn't catch that it was the same company."

On July 21, 2004, the Board of Estimates was slated to award TCS - a publicly traded wireless data company based in Annapolis - a $13 million contract to provide computer network and systems support for the city. Utech was listed as a female-owned subcontractor, set to receive $643,524 for its work.

Because of problems with the bidding process, the board - including Dixon - agreed to reject all bids and voted unanimously to extend the deal with TCS and its subcontractor Utech. The council president never mentioned her sister's employment.

On May 11, 2005, the board awarded TCS a $3.7 million increase and another extension to its multiyear contract. The agenda states that TCS had held the contract since 1998 and lists "Union Technologies" as a subcontractor with a $402,409 stake.

Dixon voted in favor of the extension and increase, according to the transcript. She never disclosed her sister's employment.

Six months later, the board awarded TCS a new three-year contract, worth $6.3 million, according to board records. Union Technologies was listed as a subcontractor for $580,000.

Dixon did not disclose her sister's employment with Utech, and she did not abstain from voting.

But she did not vote "yes" either. Dixon voted against the contract, while the four other board members supported it. Her spokesman, Williams, said that Dixon's main concern, as reflected in the transcript, was the purchasing department's handling of the bid process.

"What does that tell you?" said Tripps, Dixon's chief of staff, about the council president's "no" vote.

Williams said, "She certainly didn't do Utech any favors by voting 'no.'"

City Ethics Board Chairman Robert L. Bogomolny said he has not made a decision on whether the board will review the situation. He said the board can examine the case only in response to a complaint or a board member request in response to media reports.

doug.donovan@baltsun.com

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