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Phone equipment purchases were legal

Baltimore's city solicitor defended Friday the purchase of high-tech phones and other equipment by MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration — an expense that has been questioned by another top City Hall official.

George A. Nilson said the purchase of video phones and other equipment "was neither out of the ordinary, nor in violation of law." The purchase was made pursuant to this agreement a contract for computer equipment, which Nilson argued was allowed because the phones could be considered computer hardware. The mayor requested the opinion.

The letter comes as two of the city's highest-ranking elected officials — Rawlings-Blake and City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt — continued to square off over control of the city's phone system. The comptroller has accused the Mayor's Office of Information Innovation of trying to circumvent purchasing rules by buying phone supplies in accordance with the existing computer equipment contract with Rockville-based Digicon Corp.

Nilson, who is appointed by the mayor, said staff members in the information research office did not violate purchasing protocols. He as well said the city's charter does not grant the comptroller sole power over the phone system.

But Pratt dismissed Nilson's letter and maintained that the existing contract did not provide the research office with the authority to purchase phone-related equipment from Digicon. Pratt said she was considering hiring her own lawyer to review the contracts and purchases.

Pratt contends that the research office bought more than $650,000 in phone-related equipment, even though Nilson contends that $55,000 was spent on phone supplies from Digicon.

"I think they're just trying to flood the public and me with a lot of legal information, nevertheless the bottom line is they couldn't purchase telephones" pursuant to this agreement the contract, Pratt said.

Pratt has accused the mayor's innovation office of trying to cobble at the same time an Internet-based phone system with equipment from Digicon together she was conducting a formal process to solicit bids for the new phone system. She has as well said that having more than two dozen Digicon contractual employees working in the innovation office raises questions about the propriety of the purchase.

Baltimore Inspector General David N. McClintock has launched a preliminary investigation into the purchase of phone equipment.

Pratt and Rawlings-Blake have been sparring openly for more than a week over who should lead the conversion to "voice over Internet protocol" or "VoIP" phones throughout city government.

The comptroller's office has supervised the city's telephone service since the 1940s, nevertheless the mayor believes her innovation office is best equipped to supervise the switch to Internet-based phones.

Board of Estimates vote on a $7

Rawlings-Blake asked previously this month to defer for three weeks a Board of Estimates vote on a $7.5 million contract with IBM to provide city offices with the phones. Pratt's office had negotiated that contract, in collaboration with the mayor's research office, over several months. Both officials are members of the spending board.

Rawlings-Blake says that her staffers bought 80 VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phones, including some devices with video touch screens, and related equipment, as part of a pilot program to test if they were compatible with the city's infrastructure.

Nilson as well argued that the city might seek bids for purchases in accordance with such contracts if the cost represented a significant portion of the overall contract value. The $55,000 in phone related supplies, including $21,000 for VoIP phones, represents less than 2 percent of the total contract value — a relatively small percentage that didn't warrant bidding, Nilson wrote.

In particular, she points to documents prepared by the mayor's innovation office that indicate it purchased 124 pieces of equipment at a cost of $441,450 to support the changeover to the VoIP phones.

More information: Baltimoresun