Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Pratt defends hiring of lawyer for VOIP suit

Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt fired back Thursday against a motion to dismiss her lawsuit over the city’s contract with Rockville-based Digicon Corp. to install a new Internet-based phone system for city employees.

Comptroller Joan Pratt says it would have been ‘futile’ to seek permission to hire counsel because the mayor and city solicitor are ‘joined at the hip.’

Pratt, in court papers, said the city’s motion to dismiss was filed “for no other reason except delay.” Pratt’s pro bono attorney, Charles G. Bernstein of the Law Office of Peter G. Angelos P.C., also responded to a motion by the mayor and City Council seeking to disqualify him as her attorney.

The motion to disqualify argues the comptroller needs permission from the city solicitor and Board of Estimates to seek outside counsel.

But Pratt said she is allowed to hire outside counsel as an individual taxpayer and that it was appropriate in this case because City Solicitor George A. Nilson is “joined at the hip” with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who strongly backs the VOIP contract.

“Nothing would be more useless or futile than asking this City Solicitor or this Board of Estimates (on which the Mayor has three votes) to justify the Comptroller’s hiring outside counsel,” the motion states.

A spokesman for the mayor did not return calls for comment, but Nilson responded sharply on Thursday.

“To say that I am joined at the hip with the mayor is personally insulting,” he said in an interview. “Our job is to represent everyone, including the comptroller. Not every piece of advice I give to the mayor is pleasing to the mayor or to the comptroller.”

In court papers, Pratt said Nilson had “orally advised” her that he had a conflict; Nilson, though, said he told Pratt in writing that there was no conflict.

“The only conflict is that I wrote an opinion with which she disagreed,” Nilson said.

Pratt’s lawsuit alleges that the mayor circumvented the city’s competitive bidding process in granting the contract to Digicon this year. Rawlings-Blake has said she relied on Nilson’s written opinion that the work was covered by an existing contract for computer systems and therefore did not need to be put out for separate bid.

On Thursday, Nilson also said he continues to believe that the comptroller cannot sue the city for which she is an elected official.

The city solicitor sits on the Board of Estimates, as do the comptroller and mayor. (The other members of the five-member board, which approves all major city contracts, are the City Council president and the Director of Public Works.)

Nilson argued in the motion to dismiss that the city is a unitary municipal entity — that the comptroller is not adverse to the city and is not a separate party.

“Between the Comptroller and the City, only the City possesses Charter-granted power to sue and be sued,” he said in the motion. “The Comptroller therefore lacks standing to maintain this suit.”

In his memorandum in support of the motion to disqualify outside counsel, Nilson said the city charter makes the city solicitor “the sole legal advisory for the City and its officials and employees.”

“A City official may retain outside counsel in only the rarest of circumstances – where the City Solicitor determines there exists an irreconcilable conflict of interest between the official and the City, and where the City Board of Estimates also votes to approve the employment of outside counsel,” he said. “None of this has happened, and none of this has happened because there is no conflict between the legal interests of the Comptroller and those of the City itself.”

Fred Guy, director of the Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics at the University of Baltimore, however said that while he has no doubt that Nilson would do a good job and would be fair if he represented the comptroller, he worries about the public perception.

“How fair are you going to be if you represent one party but answer to another?” Guy said in an interview Thursday.