The seemingly obscure issue of who should control Baltimore’s underground conduits has moved from in-your-face factional fighting at City Hall to a burst of anonymous phone calls and texts reaching across the city.
“Hello, this is Diane calling with an urgent message for Baltimore City residents,” begins the robocall some residents have been receiving.
“Baltimore Gas and Electric is utilizing influence within the Brandon Scott administration to attempt to take control of our city’s underground conduit system,” the message from “Diane” continues.
Before she closes with “have a blessed day,” Diane explains what conduits are, denounces the agreement that Mayor Brandon Scott has argued is a good one for citizens, and urges the listener to sign an online petition to “let the mayor know you object to the backroom deal.”
The message ends without a sentence disclosing who the call is “paid for by” – the so-called “authority line” required under Maryland law for certain robocalls.
The texts, which provide a link to the petition and a number to call to hear the same recorded message, come from an untraceable source.
“It certainly looks like somebody is putting some money into this” – James Cabezas, retired chief investigator for the State Prosecutor.
Asked whether the calls and texts violate election law, the former chief investigator for the Maryland Office of the State Prosecutor said he didn’t think so.
“It’s mandated by law to have an authority line if it’s a political ad or if it’s intended for the promotion or de-motion of a candidate,” said James Cabezas, who dealt with the issue during his nearly 40 years with the OSP, from which he retired in 2017.
“This appears to be about an issue and there’s no election now,” Cabezas said, adding, “But it certainly looks like somebody is putting some money into this.”
Who’s Behind the Curtain?
Sleuthing out the source of the multi-platform campaign isn’t easy.
While the calls and texts are anonymous, they direct people to a website that offers some clues pointing to the responsible party.
• The website, chillbge.com, has links to the petition at iteambaltimore.com.
• And that page has a link leading to YouTube videos from the online radio program, “The Outsiders,” that started producing content late last year.
The show has focused on a number of local political topics, with host Sean Simms, co-host Kim Banks and guests dispensing withering criticism of Scott and his administration.
While the hosts and guests at some points discuss the policy implications of City Hall actions, there is also repartee mocking the mayor personally.
The “Outsiders” video linked on the petition page, for instance, is headlined, “The Outsiders piledrive ‘Slim Shady’ Baltimore Mayor.”
Another on the Outsiders’ YouTube page is titled, “Mayor gone rogue in support of takeover of Baltimore conduit system.”
Host points to a “resource”
Asked who is behind the petition drive, Simms said the organizer is Desmond Stinnie, president and CEO of Opulent Cloud.
“He’s one of our resources,” Simms said, noting that the Baltimore tech entrepreneur called in to the program’s February 12 broadcast to talk about the issue.
At about 56:40 Stinnie goes on the air to discuss in some detail why he thinks the BGE deal is bad for the city and “an egregious power grab by the mayor.”
He urges people to sign the petition being touted in the robocalls and repeats the website link, spelling it out.
Asked who funds the radio program, Simms said he and his co-host “are just doing it on our own right now,” though they may begin to expand it, with advertisers and a podcast in the future.
Seeking to find out more about the robocalls, texts and petition drive and who may be funding them, The Brew was unable to reach Stinnie.
A message was left for him at several numbers linked to him, including one where a person promised to take a message.
In 2019, Stinnie’s name came up in the run-up to the children’s book scandal involving former Mayor Catherine Pugh.
Stinnie was the resident agent on a very early iteration of her business called Healthy Holly Company LLC.
Established as a “for-profit company producing merchandise targeting young children,” the company was forfeited for failure to file a property return, according to online records at the Maryland Office of Assessments and Taxation.
“Political silly season”
While the robocall campaign may be a bit mysterious, other attacks on the conduit deal have been out in the open.
City Council President Nick Mosby and Comptroller Bill Henry, who boycotted the conduit vote last week, have criticized Scott for moving too quickly on an agreement they say contradicts the wishes of voters and cedes too much power to the private utility.
State Senator Mary Washington, who went on Twitter to denounce the deal and the way it was done, drew a dismissive response from Scott last week.
“We know this is political silly season and folks are going to say political silly things,” said Scott, who is at the midpoint of his term, with potential 2024 mayoral challengers weighing their prospects.
Other critics include Comcast, Crown Castle and a handful of other conduit users who wrote a letter to Scott expressing their concerns about BGE dominance over the municipal system.
But the biggest potential loser is Commercial Utilities LLC.
Since 2016, the company has reaped over $100 million in revenues after it and partner KCI Technologies were awarded a sole-source contract to rehabilitate the city’s conduit system.
The repeatedly renewed contract constitutes nearly all of the work that Commercial Utilities (formerly Commercial Construction) has ever performed – and it will end under the BGE agreement.
The parent company is run by Kevin Johnson, a politically wired businessman who was given an unusual public forum at the February 9 City Council hearing looking into the conduit agreement.
With Commercial employees cheering him on from the audience, Johnson criticized BGE’s offer to make $30 million per year in capital improvements, or $120 million over a four-year period.
”If this was a public procurement, I can tell you right now that we’d guarantee that our submission would put at least $40 million a year into the conduit system,” he said.
He vowed to fight the Scott administration’s failure to give his company advance notice of the deal.
Judy Johnson, his wife, and Ron Adolph, his conduit chief, contributed $10,000 to Scott’s campaign committee last November.
These contributions – plus another $5,000 from J.P. Grant, who figured prominently in the Healthy Holly scandal – came before the Board of Estimates approved a $12 million supplement to the Commercial-KCI contract, bringing its total price to $120 million.
Johnson, Adolph and Grant did not return email messages asking whether they or their companies were involved in the robocall and petition drive.
• To reach a reporter: firstname.lastname@example.org