Baltimore's inspector general said Thursday he has launched a preliminary investigation into high-tech video phones the mayor's office bought for some City Hall offices — a purchase that prompted allegations of contracting irregularities and outcry about such spending in a time of tight budgets.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's office has defended the purchase of several dozen phones at a cost of $20,800, including six desktop phones for the mayor, City Council president and other top officials that boast touch screens and the capability for video conferencing.
The issue came to light when Comptroller Joan M. Pratt accused the mayor and her former information technology director Rico Singleton this week of cutting an improper side deal under a $659,000 information-technology contract to install the high-tech video phones. She said the mayor stonewalled her when approached about the issue.
"You told an untruth and said you didn't know the equipment was installed," Pratt told the mayor during a public meeting. She then said Rawlings-Blake must have known that wasn't true "because it was on your desk."
The mayor's office has countered that Pratt exaggerated the money spent on phones by citing the IT contract's overall cost and made "baseless" accusations against the mayor over a legal purchase.
"We welcome the inspector general's preliminary review because the facts already show that the comptroller's personal attacks and other claims against the mayor are exaggerated or completely baseless and without any factual or legal merit," spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said in an email.
Inspector General David N. McClintock said he has requested documents related to the purchase of the phones. "We have begun the process of obtaining the documents," he said. "We'll make the decision of conducting a more full-scale investigation. It either follows city rules and regs or it doesn't."
Several City Council members reacted to Pratt's allegations by calling for a full accounting of the spending. Most said they wanted to withhold judgment on the merits of the purchase until they hear all the facts.
"I would really urge the mayor's office to come out and provide a copy of the contract so it can be clear what this money was spent on," said Councilman Bill Henry.
Councilman Brandon Scott, who worked with Rawlings-Blake's transition team when she was elected mayor and before he joined the council, said a transition committee had recommended that the city change to a VOIP system, "voice over Internet protocol technology," allowing calls to be placed through the Internet rather than traditional phone lines.
Scott questioned the necessity of the phones' video capability, however. "I hope that the people who have them are people who do neighborhood or constituent service," and not bureaucrats chatting among themselves, he said.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young was one of the six who received a video phone, though he said he didn't ask for it. "I didn't request it, but it was in my office," he said.
Some advocates seized on Pratt's allegations to criticize the mayor over cutbacks to recreation centers, community pools and fire companies. Firefighters union president Rick Hoffman said the mayor's office should scrutinize its purchases at a time when three fire companies are slated to close.
"If I were mayor, I would look at every single dime I spent before I gut a fire company," he said. "It really does irk me we're arguing about special phones at a time like this."
At this week's Board of Estimates weekly public meeting, Pratt leveled charges of impropriety against Rawlings-Blake. She said Singleton, who was accused of ethical violations "through side deals with vendors" when he worked in New York, took similar actions here "with the approval of the mayor" and "under the mayor's direction."
Singleton couldn't be reached to comment.
Singleton resigned in February after an audit in New York detailed alleged ethical violations that occurred while he worked in state government there, including negotiating a job for his girlfriend and soliciting a job for himself with a software vendor that was awarded a major contract.
Pratt said that Singleton purchased the phones using funds set aside for a computer contract. The purchase never went before the city's spending panel and infringed upon her traditional duties as comptroller, as her office has directed telephone-related purchases since the 1940s, Pratt said.
"None of the items of the contract allow for the purchase of telephone equipment," Pratt said.
The mayor's office disputed Pratt's claims. As part of a pilot program, the mayor's IT department purchased 80 phones for $20,800 last year, according to O'Doherty. He said the six most high-tech phones that enable video chatting cost $3,374. The rest of the $659,000 contract involved other IT network infrastructure purchases, O'Doherty said.
City Solicitor George Nilson said that although the city comptroller has traditionally overseen phone contracts, there was no legal reason that the mayor's office could not also be involved. The comptroller's office took over telephone contracts in 1949, but the city charter does not dictate that the comptroller supervise such contracts, he said.
"I've looked at the issue," said Nilson. "The comptroller does not possess charter authority, exclusive or otherwise, over the city's telephones."
O'Doherty said the administration believes it can save money and increase efficiencies by having one agency manage the computer and VOIP systems, effectively cutting out Pratt's agency.
Pratt said she requested information from the mayor's office to find out how many phones were purchased and where they were installed prior to the Board of Estimates meeting. She said she asked to meet with the mayor about the issue but was ignored.
Rawlings-Blake remained calm during the accusations leveled at the Board of Estimates meeting and sipped a Starbucks coffee.
"I'm very proud of the work [the mayor's Office of Information Technology] has done, saving taxpayers money," Rawlings-Blake said.
"They're not saving money," Pratt responded.
After the meeting, Pratt refused to make additional comments or provide documentation to support her claims, because she said the mayor had agreed to meet with her. Neither did the mayor's offer provide documents to support claims. As of Thursday afternoon, Pratt's office said that meeting had not yet happened.
The clash over the video phones was the second conflict between Rawlings-Blake and Pratt in a week.
On Tuesday, the mayor's office circulated a letter she sent to Pratt that criticized the comptroller's office for allowing six auditor positions to remain unfilled after Rawlings-Blake funded them. Pratt responded in a three-page letter defending her agency.
"Your letter suggests that the Department of Audits has not been diligent in its efforts to recruit and hire auditor staff," Pratt wrote. "That is incorrect."