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Auditor faults Baltimore mayor's staff for racking up thousands of dollars in questionable purchases

Staff members in Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh’s office improperly passed around a city credit card and racked up thousands of dollars in questionable purchases, according to a report by the city auditor and records obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

The card was in the name of Pugh’s then-chief of staff, Kim Morton. She was reassigned in April to work out problems with city grants, but has since left the mayor’s office for a job at the city water agency, where she previously worked.

Officials declined to say whether any disciplinary action was taken as a result of the audit.

“We saw no evidence to support that procurement card transactions were adequately reviewed and approved,” to ensure they were allowed, Auditor Audrey Askew wrote in her report.

The audit report covered the last three months of 2017.

The Baltimore Sun obtained records through a Maryland Public Information Act request that document spending on the card between August 2017 and June 2018. Those records showed a $1,176 printing expense in June 2018 that was not approved by Morton. The item is circled on the records with a handwritten note that reads: “Circled item was not approved by card holder,” as required under city rules.

Asked about that expense, city Finance Director Henry Raymond acknowledged staff members other than Morton regularly used the card.

The statements show the card was used to cover a range of expenses incurred by the mayor’s team, such as travel to other cities. But there were other expenses, too. In April, it was used to by a $254 rug for an event with the mayor at City Hall and a $1,700 Apple laptop. In June, staff bought the mayor a $63 phone charger.

Also, city rules generally only allow purchases on a card for up to $5,000. The records released to the Sun showed that the card was used to rent tents for $5,300 for the Baltimore AFRAM African American Festival.

Asked Wednesday about the issues at a news conference, Pugh said she never made use of the credit card.

“I didn’t even know we had credit cards,” Pugh said.

Pugh said she would ask the city procurement office “to tighten up their process and to make sure we’re using it and training people to use it properly.”

Askew also discovered the credit limit on the card was improperly raised from $15,000 to $40,000 to cover the costs of buying and dry cleaning coats to be given to homeless people at a fall festival. The total expenses came to $23,961, according to the audit.

In an interview, Askew questioned why the coats were bought using the card.

“They should have done something different,” she said. “I don’t know why it was done with a [credit card]. It was a large purchase.”

Raymond said officials made a decision that it was the right way to proceed in the circumstances. The money is in the process of being refunded from the mayor’s homelessness office.

The auditor found the card was used to buy furniture for a homeless person and food at a Baltimore Orioles game for members of the Squeegee Corps.

The furniture purchases were “unallowable,” the auditor wrote in the report, because the city should not buy property for someone’s private benefit. City officials said the costs for the furniture are being reimbursed by a private group.

The purchases of food and other personal items for the Squeegee Corps, a group of windshield-cleaning youths taken under the mayor's wing, was “excessive and some were unallowable,” the report said.

The auditor also found $338 in restaurant lunch purchases for which no business purpose was recorded.

Raymond said the mayor was not personally implicated in the audit’s findings.

Askew publicly presented the findings Wednesday to the mayor and other city leaders at a meeting of the Board of Estimates.

Raymond told the Board of Estimates that the mayor’s office accepted the findings of the report and had put stricter oversight in place.

Raymond confirmed at the mayor’s news conference that several officials regularly made use of the card, which was “inconsistent” with city rules.

“It was a very small group of people,” he said.

The card is now in the name of Renee Newton, an aide to Pugh.

iduncan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/iduncan

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