Pratt decries lack of action on replacing wasteful city phones

The drama over Baltimore's dysfunctional phone system began its next act Wednesday, with the city authorizing a private attorney to defend Comptroller Joan M. Pratt amid an ethics investigation — and Pratt leveling more accusations that the Rawlings-Blake administration is wasting taxpayer dollars through inaction.

The Board of Estimates approved $2,000 for Pratt to hire an attorney as the city's ethics board investigates whether she should have accepted free legal work from Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos' law firm in 2012, when she sued the administration alleging illegal practices. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her staff contended the legal work violated the city's ethics code, which generally prohibits elected officials from taking gifts from people who do business with their agencies.

Pratt disputed that accusation, saying the work was for the comptroller's office and the people of Baltimore, not her personally. Ethics board chairwoman Linda B. "Lu" Pierson said she could not comment on the investigation, but Pratt said it involves her lawsuit.

"In the spirit of transparency and accountability, I brought this item before the board so the citizens could know what they are paying for," Pratt said Wednesday.

Pratt also used the meeting to criticize the administration over a lack of progress in upgrading the municipal phone system, a source of contention between the comptroller and Rawlings-Blake for nearly two years. Many city phones lack basic features, such as call waiting and caller ID, and the city's system is more expensive than other more modern options.

Pratt says she has a proposal to upgrade the system but the administration has stalled her efforts. She says the current system wastes $400,000 a month.

"The public should be outraged, as I am," she told reporters Wednesday. "We've had endless meetings, with no solution in sight. We have meetings and more meetings."

Pratt wants to accept an IBM proposal to upgrade the system to one using voice-over-Internet-protocol technology at a cost of $5.3 million to $6.5 million. Finance Director Harry E. Black said the comptroller's proposal is too expensive.

"We're trying to establish a win-win situation that actually gets us a modernized telephone system but at the same time is cost-effective," he said. "What the comptroller's office has on the table, it's not clear it will save us money. It most likely will cost us a significant amount more."

Black acknowledged that the progress has been slower than either side would like.

"Does the city need a new telephone system? Without question," he said. "Has it been a slow process? Yes. Initially, it started out from a contentious perspective, and we're trying to work through that."

He said he planned more meetings with Pratt in the coming weeks.

Two years ago, Pratt's office urged a $7 million contract go to IBM, which won a bidding process supervised by her office. But the mayor rejected the deal as too expensive. In the meantime, both sides acknowledge the city is wasting millions of dollars on its outdated 14,000-line system.

While Pratt was seeking bids, the Mayor's Office of Information Technology was quietly using an existing contract to spend nearly $675,000 on phone and computer equipment to start replacing the system, an investigation by the city's inspector general found. Inspector General David N. McClintock also found that the mayor's technology office withheld information from other city officials about the project and missed opportunities for cost savings.

After that report came out, Pratt filed suit against the Rawlings-Blake administration, alleging that the mayor's office was illegally circumventing the competitive bidding process and wasting taxpayer dollars. The Angelos firm handled the suit, which was dismissed, without charge.

Pratt said she does not believe Angelos — who in addition to owning the Orioles and a law firm owns multiple properties — currently does business with the comptroller's office. She said she would recuse herself if any matters involving Angelos should come before the Board of Estimates, where she is one of five members.

Pratt's attorney, Charles Bernstein of the Angelos firm, also rejected the idea that accepting the legal work was an ethics violation.

City Councilman Brandon Scott, who was on a committee that recommended a phone overhaul in 2011, lamented the lack of progress in moving forward with a new phone system.

"It's just unfortunate," he said. "It's time for everyone to put their personal feelings aside. We can't keep going back and forth about who's right and who's wrong, especially when it comes to saving money. It's just taking too long."

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