If a public official accuses the mayor of wrongdoing, does it matter whether the allegations are made in a public meeting?

In journalism, the answer is yes.

Baltimore Comptroller Joan Pratt made a sensational allegation this week. She claimed the mayor's office illegally spent $659,000 on a private deal that included high-tech video phones for City Hall offices. Repeatedly, she asserted the purchase was illegal and blamed MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakeand former IT director Rico Singleton.

But Pratt failed to provide documentation to back up her claim, and then stopped taking reporters' phone calls, saying she was waiting to meet with Rawlings-Blake before making further comments.

If Pratt had made such a claim during a private phone conversation, The Sun likely would have declined to publish her allegations without more supporting documentation, citing a lack of evidence. But since Pratt made the allegations publicly from the dais at the city's weekly Board of Estimates meeting, they became part of the public record and, therefore, fair game.

In journalism, this is called the "fair report" privilege, which allows for journalists to ethically print inflammatory statements made by public officials during public proceedings, such as city council meetings or trials in court.

The public has a right to know what's happening at taxpayer-funded meetings, including election officials accusing each other of wrongdoing, even if those allegations turn out to be false.

But journalistic standards also demand that we investigate, as best we can, all such allegations. Journalists should try their hardest to find evidence that either supports or debunks allegations made by public officials. Thus far, that effort has included dozens of inquiries -- including phone calls, emails and visits -- at both the mayor and comptroller's offices. We've pored over public information act requests and vetted all the documents related to Pratt's claims we could get our hands on. 

Whether Pratt's allegations turn out to be true, false or some mix of truth and falsity remains to be seen. We have verified that some of the high-tech phones do, indeed, exist, backing up parts of her claims. The mayor's office has called her allegations "exaggerated" and "baseless," and acknowledged purchasing only $20,800 worth of phones, including six of the high-tech video phones. The city solicitor has said he believes the purchase was legal. The city's inspector general is now probing Pratt's claims and, like us, requested relevant documents. (It's worth noting that both the city solicitor and IG are appointed by the mayor.) 

As we obtain more information, we will be sure to update you.

Luke.Broadwater@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/lukebroadwater