On this morning’s Board of Estimates agenda is a plan to allocate more money to Fearless Solutions LLC, a software company owned and operated by Delali Dzirasa, husband of Baltimore’s deputy mayor and former health commissioner, Letitia Dzirasa.
What started out as a $1 million services contract with Fearless to redesign the city’s website, baltimorecity.gov, has ballooned to $2.2 million at the same time the go-live launch date has been pushed back to March or April of 2024.
“Unforeseen complexities in the city’s web environment” and “unanticipated requirements” are blamed for the latest $250,000 cost hike, according to the Baltimore City Information and Technology office (BCIT).
“Due to the [launch] delay, the city now wishes to amend the contract for the provision of go-live support and additional closeout tasks,” BCIT says in its request for additional funding to Fearless, which bills itself as one of the fastest-growing digital services companies in the country.
UPDATE 1: The Board of Estimates – which includes three elected officials: Mayor Brandon Scott, City Council President Nick Mosby and Comptroller Bill Henry – unanimously approved the $250,000 increase to Fearless without discussion or comment. We are waiting for a response from the Dzirasas and from the mayor’s office.
The company’s original 2023 contract with BCIT raised eyebrows in the tech community because it was structured as a “non-construction consultant agreement” rather than a straightforward itemized contract.
This allowed the Board of Estimates to award the contract to Fearless – where Letitia worked as its health innovative officer prior to be being named Baltimore’s health commissioner in 2019 – without seeking bids from other software companies.
Last week, the deputy mayor amended her ethics statement to report that Fearless Solutions “has obtained an in-kind contract to support facilitating the Mayor’s Business Roundtable from 1/11 – 4/10/2024.”
Nowhere in her ethics statement is Fearless’ website redesign contract cited.
Under Section 7-22 of the Ethics Law, city employees are required to disclose their financial interests in a private company, whether or not it does business with the city. This includes a company held by a spouse or a company in which a city employee has an “attributable interest.” In a 2021 ethics statement, she disclosed that her husband was president and CEO of Fearless, but did not disclose the arrangement in her recent statements.
Questions emailed yesterday to the Dzirasas, asking why Fearless is seeking more money from the city and whether the deputy mayor has direct or indirect ownership interests in the company, were not answered.
Baltimore’s previous website designer was selected through competitive bidding.
The winner, Virginia-based Interpersonal Frequency LLC, submitted a low bid of $286,000, which was approved by then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the BOE in January 2014.
Five years later, BCIT failed to pay past-due bills to Interpersonal and let the hosting contract lapse. The city was a week away from having its web services suspended when BCIT paid the delinquent bills and announced it would prepare a new website contract for competitive bidding.
That never happened.
Instead, according to two sources who asked not to be named, Mayor Scott met with Fearless representatives and a Fearless-financed incubator in late 2022, telling them he wanted to increase minority representation in tech and computer contracts issued by the city.
This led to the initial $1,078,847 consultant agreement between BCIT and Fearless in which Fearless promised to provide training services as well as develop a browser-independent website to function as a community information source.
In its Performance Work Statement and Technical Approach Overview, the company stated:
“Team Fearless will champion an agile approach and collaborative foundation that will both speed delivery of the mock-ups and prototypes for the baltimorecity.gov redesign and assure cross-agency buy-in. . .
“Team Fearless’ Human-Centered Design (HCD) philosophy ensures we will create desirable, viable and feasible products as we iteratively flow through the following design phases: 1) Inspiration, 2) Ideation and 3) Implementation. We will apply the information we’ve gathered, synthesized and analyzed through research, prototyping and testing to create data-driven designs.”
“Team Fearless will champion an agile approach and collaborative foundation. . . as we iteratively flow through the following design phases: 1) Inspiration, 2) Ideation and 3) Implementation” – Performance Work Statement.
Scott hailed the agreement in a press release, without mentioning Fearless’ ownership, as “part of my first-term action plan, Responsible Stewardship of City Resources,” adding that the “winning bid” was going to a local, minority-owned business.
Last April, Scott appointed Letitia Dzirasa deputy mayor responsible for equity, health and social services. Three weeks later, the Board of Estimates unanimously approved an $887,844 increase to the Fearless contract.
In October, the mayor kicked off his bid for a second term by holding a fundraiser at The Fearless Club, a venue within the downtown CFG Bank Arena that serves as a meeting place for BIPOC business owners, according to Dzirasa.
The tech CEO said he played no part in the fundraiser, and he and his wife didn’t attend. State Elections Board records show that he personally contributed $2,500 to Scott’s re-election campaign last August.