Angelos firm handling Pratt's lawsuit against mayor over phone purchases

The law firm of prominent lawyer and Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos is handling without charge Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt's lawsuit against the Rawlings-Blake administration's efforts to install a new city phone system that Pratt says illegally circumvented the competitive bidding process and wasted taxpayer dollars.

"Mr. Angelos is a very public-spirited citizen who always looks out for the little guy," said Pratt's attorney, Charles Bernstein of the Angelos firm. "In this case, the little guy is the Baltimore taxpayer. Mr. Angelos is very concerned with a clean, open government. Ms. Pratt came to him about this matter, and he told me to try to help her out."

Pratt filed a lawsuit Friday seeking to stop Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's technology office from installing a new phone system for city offices, alleging that the administration used an "underhanded, illegal technique" to bypass the competitive bidding process.

Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said Pratt is wasting city resources by engaging in a legal fight over a matter that should be handled through collaboration among the branches of city government. He called the suit "an unnecessary waste of time and resources and is completely ill-advised."

There was no need for a restraining order because, he said, the administration is not trying to unilaterally install a phone system but is seeking instead to meet with Pratt.

O'Doherty pointed out that Angelos' firm has been involved in lawsuits against the city before.

"The firm has provided legal services to many organizations that have sued or are suing the city of Baltimore, so it's not at all surprising and shouldn't be read into too much," he said.

Among other cases, the Angelos firm has challenged plans by the city and state to redevelop the State Center complex on Preston Street and replace it with a mixed-use development. In the last mayoral election, Angelos — a major donor to Democrats — financially backed City Councilman Carl Stokes when he briefly ran against Rawlings-Blake.

"There's no question that Peter Angelos is a power player in Baltimore politics," said Todd Eberly, an assistant professor of political science at St. Mary's College. "He's clearly picked a side against Rawlings-Blake."

Eberly said the phone controversy helps neither Pratt nor Rawlings-Blake politically.

"I don't find this to be a healthy thing," he said. "It takes politics and turns it into an institutional battle. This has not been healthy for the city, and it harms the reputation of city government."

Pratt's suit seeks a temporary restraining order against the Rawlings-Blake administration to prevent the Mayor's Office of Information Technology from using existing contracts with Digicon Corp. to install a Voice over Internet Protocol phone system. The administration and Pratt's office have both been working to install such a system, leading to a City Hall turf war.

Baltimore's Board of Estimates, which is controlled by Rawlings-Blake, rejected a $7.4 million contract with IBM for a new phone system in July. Pratt said that IBM was the lowest bidder and should have been awarded the contract.

Meanwhile, the mayor's office contends it had the right to buy equipment for a VoIP project under an existing contract with Digicon. Another contract with Digicon provided staffing.

Voice over Internet Protocol systems allow calls to be placed through the Internet rather than on traditional phone lines and are considered more efficient.

In her lawsuit, Pratt contends Digicon didn't participate in the bidding process in which IBM emerged as the winner, and therefore shouldn't be allowed to continue work on implementing the new phone system.

Pratt's lawsuit was filed Friday in Baltimore Circuit Court. Bernstein said the court has asked him to make some technical amendments to the request for a restraining order, which he plans to file Tuesday. A hearing date has not been set.

An investigation by the city's inspector general into the Rawlings-Blake administration's purchase of nearly $675,000 in phone and computer equipment found possible conflicts of interest and missed opportunities for "significant cost savings." The report was released in September.

Inspector General David N. McClintock also found that the information was withheld from other city officials about the project. For example, the report said a former deputy mayor directed another city employee to mislead City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young by denying that the mayor's office was taking steps to upgrade the city's phone system.

McClintock said in an interview that his probe found no illegalities.

The mayor's technology office failed to get multiple quotes when buying equipment, which could have yielded savings, McClintock wrote. He also wrote that two key managers charged with implementing the new system were contractors or subcontractors with Digicon, which has offices in Rockville. One of them was allowed to commit city resources "in a way that financially benefited Digicon."

Administration officials took issue with some of the report's findings and said the equipment was purchased inexpensively. In a statement, the mayor's office contended that the technology purchases were "neither out of the ordinary nor in violation of law," citing an opinion by the city solicitor.



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