Baltimore Comptroller Joan Pratt voted to sell city property to the church where she worships, which the city’s inspector general said was a conflict of interest on Pratt’s part that stemmed from “administrative oversights” in the comptroller’s office.
A Wednesday report from Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming outlines how Pratt voted in 2017 as a member of Baltimore’s powerful spending board to approve the sale of 15 city-owned vacant lots to Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where Pratt has long been a member and trustee.
Members of the city’s Board of Estimates are supposed to abstain from voting on items in which they have a conflict of interest.
“The investigation revealed the comptroller relies on her staff to identify from which BOE items she should be recused,” the report states. “Comptroller Pratt agreed she should have abstained and that the responsibility for the voting oversight ultimately rests with her.”
The Democratic comptroller said that ahead of the Nov. 1, 2017, meeting, she told a staff member that she wanted to abstain from a vote to sell properties to her church in West Baltimore’s Upton neighborhood. She said that person didn’t properly note the abstention, so it wasn’t announced during the meeting, and Pratt ended up approving the sale as part of the board’s consent agenda, where items are approved en masse.
Staff who prepared the agenda also were supposed to consult an "abstentions list” and flag items tied to Pratt, who sits on the board along with the mayor, City Council president, city solicitor and public works director.
Pratt has said that her team did not catch the Bethel AME item during a final check for potential conflicts because they failed to search for “A.M.E.” with periods in the abbreviation, and it got past them.
Cumming’s report says the vote points to deeper problems in the comptroller’s office, which is responsible for compiling the lengthy board agendas.
“The investigation found administrative oversights in the office of the comptroller during the pre-BOE process led to Comptroller Pratt’s vote in favor of the deal,” the report states.
Pratt said any assertion that she relies on her staff to vet items is untrue. She said in an interview Wednesday that it is her practice to comb through the document page by page.
Cumming suggested that a centralized list of abstentions be maintained to ward off such mistakes, something that Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young supports.
The deal involved parking lots used by Bethel AME members and neighbors. The city sold the lots to the church for $1 each, documents show, even though the baseline assessment value for a vacant lot in Baltimore is $1,000.
The church said it spent thousands of dollars on upkeep of the lots over 20 years. And city representatives told Cumming’s office that it’s not unusual for the city to sell property for less than its assessed value in cases where the buyer has previously paid for expenses tied to the property.
In a written response to the report, Pratt wrote she agreed with the finding that her vote on business related to Bethel AME “was a conflict as the result of an administrative oversight.”
But she emphasized she had “no influence over the property sale.” The sale likely would have been approved even without her vote because the board approves items on the routine agenda by a voice vote.
The report said Pratt’s ties to the church include that an accounting firm she owns has prepared the church’s tax returns in the past. Pratt said that the church is exempt from filing taxes, but she did volunteer to prepare the affiliated Bethel Outreach Center’s filings.
Her most recent financial disclosure form from Friday does not state that she’s a church trustee, as required; Pratt said Wednesday she will amend the filing to add that.
The inspector general’s report refers several times to Pratt’s explanation about the vote in a July interview with Baltimore Fishbowl, which first reported the investigation.
Pratt is running for reelection in the April 28 primary against City Councilman Bill Henry, a Democrat who represents District 4. He said the inspector general’s report “reflects the lack of transparency and oversight people have come to expect from the office.”
“Beyond failing to properly screen for conflicts of interest, the report demonstrates that, at a minimum, the technology and procedures for how the comptroller’s office conducts the business of the Board of Estimates are not serving the people of Baltimore City well,” he wrote in a statement.
This is not the first time something’s been overlooked on one of the spending panel’s agendas. Last summer, a typo in the document almost led the city to reduce property taxes for homeowners to close to zero. That mistake stemmed from a clerical error in a memo submitted by the city’s finance department; Pratt said at the time that not every submission from city agencies is proofread.
Cumming’s report also found the comptroller’s office has not kept a current abstentions list since around last April “because the abstentions became too varied.”
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Pratt said Wednesday such a list is unnecessary because of how often it would change.
“One day, you may have a reason to abstain on something and another day you may not have a reason,” she said.
But Cumming said the absence of such a list “creates confusion regarding which items a member of the BOE should recuse themselves from and could lead to more votes cast by mistake.”
Democratic City Council President Brandon Scott’s office keeps a list of about a dozen organizations and topics he abstains from voting on, including those related to the Center for Urban Families, where he’s a board member, and anything tied to elected officials’ salaries.
There are usually several abstentions recorded at the start of each Board of Estimates meeting. At Wednesday’s meeting, for example, Young abstained from an item related to the Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success and another connected to Johns Hopkins, where he used to work.
Since becoming aware of the 2017 issue, Pratt wrote to Cumming that she “increased controls to assure compliance with conflict of interest requirements.” She continues to review the agenda herself and checks with staff to ensure abstentions are correctly noted, and then announced, during Board of Estimates meetings.
“We’re checking, double checking and checking again to make sure,” she said.