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Baltimore Comptroller Pratt repeatedly voted to approve spending for groups on ‘abstentions list,’ report finds

Baltimore Comptroller Joan Pratt voted 30 times in three years to approve city spending on organizations with which she appeared to have a connection, a review from the Office of the Inspector General released Thursday found. Pratt is shown in this file photo at a news conference at City Hall.
Baltimore Comptroller Joan Pratt voted 30 times in three years to approve city spending on organizations with which she appeared to have a connection, a review from the Office of the Inspector General released Thursday found. Pratt is shown in this file photo at a news conference at City Hall. (Sun photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Baltimore Comptroller Joan Pratt voted 30 times in three years to approve millions of dollars worth of city spending on organizations with which she appeared to have a connection, a review from the Office of the Inspector General found.

Pratt, a member of the city’s powerful spending board, maintained an evolving “abstentions list," noting companies and organizations with which she is affiliated. Each of the board’s five members have had such a list and used it to refrain from voting on items for which they might have a conflict of interest.

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But Inspector General Isabel Cumming’s report released Thursday found more than two dozen instances when Pratt did not abstain between December 2016 and October 2019. The report also highlighted a pattern in the comptroller’s office of adding and then removing organizations from her abstentions list.

Pratt "voted to approve more than $48 million worth of contracts, grants and vendor prequalification amounts involving organizations and individuals from which she self-identified as needing to abstain from,” according to the 123-page report.

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The comptroller issued a statement Thursday evening saying the report contains “numerous misleading and false conclusions.” She did not elaborate on what was incorrect, but said the report was rushed and didn’t give her enough time to investigate it, provide evidence and respond with her own findings.

“I anticipate that the internal investigation being conducted on my behalf will lead to a report that will show that the inspector general never interviewed key witnesses who were available and, most importantly, would have corrected those blatant errors," she wrote. “I look forward to the just resolution of this misguided investigation and to getting back to the work that I was elected to do.”

There are usually several recusals recorded at the start of each weekly Board of Estimates meeting. Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Democratic City Council President Brandon Scott also sit on the spending board, along with the city solicitor and public works director.

Typically when Cumming issues a report on a city employee, their boss is responsible for addressing the issue. Pratt, meanwhile, is one of three citywide elected officials and answerable to voters.

She hired an attorney to represent her in connection with this investigation.

Pratt, in office since 1995, is running in a competitive Democratic primary against City Councilman Bill Henry. He said he was “deeply concerned” about the finding of the report, saying the comptroller’s office demonstrates “a pattern of letting things slip through the cracks.”

“We keep learning more and more about various problems in the city comptroller’s office," Henry said in a statement. "Baltimoreans deserve a comptroller who will be fully transparent with the public.”

This report comes on the heels of another investigation by Cumming’s office, in which the inspector general found the comptroller voted in 2017 to sell city property to the church where she worships — a conflict of interest stemming from what that Feb. 5 report described as “administrative oversights” in Pratt’s office.

During the earlier investigation, Pratt told the inspector general that she goes through the Board of Estimates agenda page-by-page each week and tells staff which items require an abstention. She looks for businesses that she’s prepared taxes for through her accounting firm or organizations she oversees as a board member.

“Pratt told the OIG that her vote to approve the Bethel AME sale was a mistake and that her staff should have caught the mistake,” Thursday’s report states. “However, the OIG has since found 30 additional instances of her failure to abstain in a timespan of less than three years.”

Cumming wrote in a letter to Pratt that her office’s latest probe took place over two weeks.

Cumming’s reports usually include a response from the person at the center of the investigation. Pratt requested an extension on that portion so she could “research information I used” over the three-year period “to determine whether a conflict existed.”

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“We need additional time to protect Ms. Pratt’s rights to a fair process,” lawyer William Martin wrote Wednesday to Cumming in a request for an additional extension. He said the coronavirus pandemic made assembling a proper response challenging.

Pratt has said in prior interviews that she abstains from votes for a variety of reasons, including if she has a business or personal relationship with someone, or is on a board related to the organization seeking the contract.

According to Thursday’s report, Pratt’s decisions to recuse herself from votes appear “variable in that one week she abstained, then a few weeks or months later, she did not abstain.”

For instance, the report shows Pratt voted May 10, 2017, to approve an item involving American Contracting & Environmental Services, despite the company being on her abstentions list. A few weeks later, the company did not appear on her list and she did not recuse herself from the vote. Then, in July 2018, she abstained from a vote involving the company — even though it wasn’t listed on her abstentions list at the time.

Pratt is on the board of trustees for a handful of groups, including her church, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Her job as comptroller also requires her to sit on some city boards. And Pratt owns an accounting firm.

Pratt’s latest available abstentions list, from April 2019, includes roughly 85 people and companies. Scott’s list, by contrast, contains about a dozen names.

The potential conflicts highlighted Cumming’s report involve 30 items stemming from 10 organizations. Pratt’s connections are clear in some instances, while not apparent in others.

In July 2019, for example, Pratt did not abstain from voting to approve a $75,000 grant for the Legal Aid Bureau. She worked for that organization before being elected comptroller, and her most recent abstentions list from April 2019 included her former employer.

Pratt’s business ties also came under a spotlight after former Mayor Catherine Pugh pleaded guilty to the fraudulent “Healthy Holly” children’s book scheme. Prosecutors outlined last month how Pugh also used a boutique, co-owned with Pratt and two other people, to “launder” money to her campaign. The shop then filed a tax return that did not mention the money Pugh brought in.

The comptroller said that while she filed the boutique’s returns, she had no knowledge of Pugh’s illegal actions. Pratt has not been charged with any crime.

Also Thursday, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Labor confirmed it is looking into Pratt’s office, but would not provide more details because it is an open investigation. That probe was first reported by The Baltimore Brew.

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Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

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