State investigators yesterday searched the office of Utech - a contracting firm tied to Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon - to execute warrants related to their probe of the company and its City Hall contracts.
Officials from the Maryland state prosecutor's office also searched the Randallstown home of Mildred E. Boyer, Utech's politically connected owner, according to sources.
The searches are the latest development in an investigation that began in March when state prosecutors issued subpoenas to Dixon's office, several city agencies and two city contractors that employed Utech as a minority subcontractor. Those actions followed articles in The Sun that revealed that Utech employed Dixon's sister while winning city contracts despite its dubious credentials.
State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh said yesterday that his office never confirms or denies the existence of investigations. Search warrants are sealed documents.
A city police spokesman confirmed that officers assisted in the execution of a search of Utech's office in the 3400 block of S. Hanover St. about 10:30 a.m. yesterday.
Frank Doan, a used-car salesman of A-Plus Auto Sales and Detailing, said he witnessed yesterday's search of Utech's office, which is upstairs from his business.
Doan said about eight Baltimore City police officers and about three men dressed in plain clothes arrived in several police cars and one unmarked vehicle.
"I did notice one of the guys was the state prosecutor who came into our office [recently] to ask about upstairs - if we had seen anyone," Doan said. "He also asked for the landlord's name and number. He showed us his badge."
He said he saw the officers and the state official leave the Utech office with a box full of documents. Boyer moved to the office in March after the city ruled that its former downtown address on Calvert Street was a "virtual office" with only a telephone and a mailbox.
It is unclear what prosecutors obtained from Boyer's house.
Byron Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor who said he was not commenting specifically on the Utech case, explained:
"[Search] warrants are a significant step forward in an investigation, but it doesn't necessarily lead to a charging document. It says: 'Not only do we have suspicion, now we have stuff that we think could prove a crime. We know what it is and we know where it is.'"
Boyer could not be reached for comment. She has not responded to repeated requests for comment since February, though she denied wrongdoing in an e-mail sent in March to city officials. The raids are the latest in a string of increasingly dire developments for the 40-year-old entrepreneur.
Last month the city's Board of Estimates, which is controlled by Mayor Martin O'Malley and chaired by Dixon, banned Utech from winning city contracts for two years because it lied on its application to be qualified to win up to $8 million in construction work on city projects.
The board approved that contractor qualification last year. Officials recently discovered that Boyer submitted "falsified and inaccurate financial statements" to obtain the qualification. The board's action followed stories in The Sun that showed Boyer had not been performing the bulk of her subcontracts on two major developments - Frankford Estates in East Baltimore and Silo Point in Locust Point.
Both projects are being built by Doracon Contracting, which is owned by Ronald H. Lipscomb, a friend of Dixon and ally of O'Malley.
In addition, Boyer surrendered her official certification as a minority and woman-owned business two weeks ago. The certification renders minority subcontractors eligible to be hired by contractors that must meet minority inclusion goals. Her action came just as the city was set to issue a ruling on whether she violated the city's minority inclusion law by hiring others to do the bulk of her work.
The law prohibits minority subcontractors from passing on more than 10 percent of their contracts to other companies.
The Sun has reported that on the Doracon projects - which are subject to the minority inclusion law because of city support - Boyer hired another electrical firm to do her work.
Utech was hired in 2003 as a minority subcontractor for two of City Hall's biggest contractors: Comcast Corp., the city's cable television provider, and TeleCommunications Systems Inc., the city's computer network manager.
The Sun recently reported that Utech used other subcontractors and transferred grant-supported city employees to its own payroll to partially fulfill its TCS subcontract.
Questions about Utech arose after The Sun reported in February that Dixon asked Comcast officials at a council committee hearing why they were no longer employing Utech. She did not disclose that her sister, Janice Dixon, had worked full time for Utech since February 2004 and part time for some months before that.
Dixon has said her sister no longer works for Utech. When Utech came before the Board of Estimates for its TCS subcontracts between 2003 and 2005, Dixon did not abstain, according to city records.
Dixon also did not abstain from the board vote that approved Utech's certificate of qualification.
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. It says public officials must recuse themselves from participating in such matters if they have knowledge of their relative's position. They must also disclose such conflicts.
Boyer has additional political connections.
She previously worked for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, and in 2002 she hired city Comptroller Joan M. Pratt to do her taxes. Her attorney was Claude E. Hitchcock, a Schmoke official and the ex-husband of one of O'Malley's deputy mayors.
After Utech landed its most lucrative city work in early 2004, Utech and Boyer contributed $5,500 to O'Malley's campaign between October 2004 and June 2005. The company and Boyer also contributed $1,500 to Dixon between October 2004 and November 2005, records show.
Sun reporters Gus Sentementes and Brent Jones contributed to this article.
The Sun reported in February that Utech employed City Council President Sheila Dixon's sister while winning city contracts.
In May, the Board of Estimates banned Utech from bidding on city contracts for two years because it lied on its application to be qualified to win up to $8 million in construction work.