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Baltimore comptroller race heats up as Pratt and Henry question each other’s qualifications

After being on the defensive for weeks about her business ties to disgraced former Mayor Catherine Pugh and an inspector general report criticizing her vote to sell city property to her church, Baltimore’s incumbent comptroller Joan Pratt went on the offensive this week with a campaign flier and robocall attacking the city councilman challenging her in next month’s Democratic primary.

The effort — highlighting a decade-old problem City Councilman Bill Henry had detailing his city expenses — reflected something not seen in an election of the top fiscal manager in decades: a potentially competitive race.

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Pratt suggested the old episode showed Henry kept poor records, a bad trait for a comptroller. Henry said that Pratt, who took office in 1995, is finally scared she might lose — and has far more glaring record-keeping lapses of her own.

“Successful incumbents don’t have to go negative on their challengers,” Henry said. “If you are attacking your opposition instead of running on your record, and you’ve got 24 years in that same position, that tells you something right there.”

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The flier and robocall focused on an incident in 2010 in which Henry, a councilman since 2007, reimbursed the city $6,500 after paying for meals he had with constituents using a $5,000 annual discretionary account afforded to him as a councilman. He had done so without explaining who he was meeting with and why, as required.

“BILL HENRY CAUGHT ‘TRYING TO RIP OFF THE CITY,’” read the flier, which was authorized by Pratt’s campaign. “ALL THAT FOOD! ALL THOSE MEALS! ALL THAT TAXPAYER MONEY!”

Henry, 51, whose wife received the flier and the robocall at their home, was not found to have been "trying to rip off” the city, only that he hadn’t properly documented the expenditures.

In a Wednesday morning interview with The Baltimore Sun, and later during a barbed WYPR segment feasturing both candidates, Henry offered the same explanation as he did a decade ago: He had charged the meals with constituents to the discretionary account, as other council members did, and had always submitted the related credit card receipts but hadn’t known he needed to submit additional information.

Once he was informed that he had to submit more information, years had passed and he no longer had thorough records of the past lunches and dinners. So he decided to repay the money instead and move on with proper disclosures.

“I said, ‘Alright, fine, I’ve learned a lesson here,’” he said in the interview.

Pratt, 68, said in another Sun interview after the Board of Estimates meeting Wednesday morning that if Henry "wants to be the fiscal watchdog, he should be able to substantiate the expenses.”

On WYPR, she said: “If you’re taking someone out to eat, you have to document the date, the person you’re out with, and the purpose. It’s simple.”

The comptroller sits on the Board of Estimates, which approves city purchases and payments, and oversees the audit and real estate departments and telecommunication services. The comptroller also sits on various fiscal boards.

Pratt had no primary challenger from 1999 to 2016. In the 2016 primary election, she took nearly 80% of the vote. In the 2016 general election, against a Libertarian challenger, she took more than 87% of the vote.

Pratt had $365,463 in campaign cash on hand earlier this year, while Henry, a councilman who represents North and Northeast Baltimore, had $104,551, according to finance reports.

The back-and-forth over Henry’s old records management echoed a focus already in the race on record keeping and rules around the disclosure of conflicts, mostly as it relates to Pratt.

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Last month, Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming issued a report in which she found that Pratt’s vote in 2017 to approve the sale of vacant city lots to Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she is a member and trustee, represented a conflict of interest stemming from “administrative oversights” in the comptroller’s office.

Henry slammed Pratt for a “lack of transparency and oversight."

Also last month, federal prosecutors described in a court filing how Pugh had funneled ill-gotten gains from her “Healthy Holly” children’s book sales through the 2 Chic Boutique she co-owned with Pratt.

The prosecutors outlined how Pugh solicited a $20,000 campaign contribution from city contractor J.P. Grant, who already had contributed the maximum individual contribution of $6,000 to Pugh’s campaign, in the form of a check written by Grant’s wife to 2 Chic Boutique. Pugh “laundered” the money through the shop, using it to make straw donations to her campaign, prosecutors said.

The shop then filed a false tax return for 2016 that made no mention of the funds, they said.

Pratt has not been charged with any crimes, but Henry issued a statement saying the prosecutors’ outline of events raised “serious concerns about Comptroller Pratt’s knowledge of 2 Chic Boutique’s accounting and tax filings.”

Pratt, who runs her own private accounting firm and had a 22% stake in the store, confirmed that she filed the boutique’s tax returns, but said she had “absolutely no knowledge” of the $20,000 check from the Grants.

She said she thought the $20,000 was a loan from Pugh, a point she reiterated Wednesday on WYPR. When WYPR host Tom Hall asked why such a big loan hadn’t caught her attention, she said it wasn’t unusual.

“Every year from 2013, since the business started, it operated at a loss, and every year a deposit was made to pay the bills,” Pratt said.

Henry said that raised even more questions.

“Why would anyone be a part of a business that loses money year after year, unless the purpose is to somehow escape tax liability?” he asked.

He also questioned why a city employee like Pratt, who makes roughly $125,000 a year as comptroller, would “still feel the need to have a side business."

Henry said in his Sun interview that Pratt’s flier and robocall were an attempt to change the topic of conversation away from the real issue for voters, which is either she was “complicit” in Pugh’s actions or “too incompetent and un-engaged in her own side business to realize” what was going on.

“That’s much more relevant of a story for the people of Baltimore to be paying attention to as we are trying to elect a comptroller — who is supposed to be a watchdog, who is supposed to be keeping an eye on exactly the sort of thing that she didn’t notice in her own business,” he said.

Pratt said her raising questions about Henry’s past had nothing to do with her business ties to Pugh.

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