Chapter Two: The Chronicles of Joan Pratt, Baltimore City comptroller.
When last encountered here a week ago, Pratt was slouching through 26 years as elected comptroller of Baltimore City, a full-time, $125,447-a-year position but with enough fluff to operate a side-line accounting business, a partnership boutique with the convicted former mayor and a romance and rental-home business with her convicted former campaign manager whom she had installed on the municipal payroll at $77,000 a year.
And now comes the second installment in the misbegotten adventures of Pratt, the Office of the Inspector General’s findings into Pratt’s repeated conflict-of-interest voting on the Board of Estimates. The report arrived over the transom, journalism’s lost-and-found department, but had been widely circulated to city officials and reported earlier.
Pratt is up for reelection to a seventh term, this time, and perhaps for the first time, she has a serious opponent in Bill Henry, a City Councilmember from the 4th District in Northeast Baltimore.
It was noted in Installment One of the Chronicles that Pratt had put aside both civics and ethics in casting a conflict-of-interest vote to award 15 city-owned lots, for $1 each to her church, Bethel AME, where she is a trustee. The lots were valued by the city at $1,000 each. Pratt acknowledged the conflict to the OIG.
That was only the tip of the heap.
Pratt’s voting conflict on the Bethel AME award was the OIG’s impetus for a broader review of the comptroller’s recent voting record.
Pratt is one of five members of the Board of Estimates, and one of two independent members. Two of the remaining three are appointed by the mayor. The City Council president is the board’s chairman.
Following Pratt’s bread crumb trail, the OIG found that the comptroller voted repeatedly at the Board of Estimates – at least 30 different times – to award $48 million in city contracts, and other beneficial considerations, to 10 different businesses and organizations. On each occasion, Pratt failed to abstain, or recuse herself from voting. And that was only over a period of three years, from December 2016, to April 2019.
Pratt, and other board members, kept lists of red-flagged vendors that might create conflicts for themselves when voting on contracts, and the OIG found erratic voting and a number of irregularities among Pratt’s voting patterns over those years. The report is accompanied by a sheaf of supporting documents.
The organizations listed in the OIG report’s summary are: American Contracting & Environmental Services; Ball & Breckenridge Trucking; Banks Contracting Company; Coppin Heights Community Development Corporation; Economic International Construction Company; Horton Mechanical Contractors; The House of Restoration; and Union Baptist Church School.
Those organizations are in no way involved in any wrongdoing in the OIG report.
The records do reveal, though, an erratic pattern of votes and abstentions for several of the firms listed, a scramble that Pratt attributed mainly to dereliction by her staff and occasionally to her own lapses, according to the OIG report.
According to the report, “Pratt told the OIG she considers her abstentions to be: anybody she has personally performed work for, past or present; anybody who has received tax work from her business, Joan M. Pratt, CPA & Associates; and any trustee position held within an organization such as her position in Bethel AME.”
Joan M Pratt, CPA & Associates is listed at the Baltimore address, 1900 E. Northern Parkway. It was reported that Pratt’s firm served as a limited partner with 22% ownership in 2 Chic Boutique, the Pigtown consignment store that she co-owned with convicted former mayor Catherine Pugh, the 60% stakeholder in the business.
At least one check, for $20,000, said by federal prosecutors to be a campaign contribution, was “laundered” by Pugh through the shop’s account. Pratt, the accountant for the boutique, had stated that she thought that the money was a loan to the failing business.
The report continued, “The OIG found that 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.”
Here is the breakdown of the $48 million into four categories:
— One contractor was approved for prequalification of more than $32.7 million.
— Three subcontractors were approved for more than $5.8 million as a percentage of the work performed for prime contractors.
— Five organizations were awarded more than $5.5 million in sub-guarantees of grants received by the city from either federal or state governments or private entities.
— Two companies were directly awarded almost $3.9 million as prime contractors.
Joan, Joan, Joan. What the hell were you thinking? Or were you?
The comptroller’s website, which features a large color photograph of Pratt, states that “The comptroller is one of three citywide elected officials and is responsible for the effective and efficient fiscal management of the city.”
The Office of Inspector General’s website, which features a color photo of IG Isabel Mercedes Cummings, states that “The mission of the Office of Inspector General is to promote accountability, efficiency and integrity in City government.”
Theoretically, and all things being copacetic, the two should not be on a collision course. The comptroller is supposed to be the civic watchdog. And the IG is supposed to watch the watchdogs.
The inspector general’s office was created by Martin O’Malley, then mayor, by executive order in 2005. The IG was made an independent office, with broad auditing and investigative powers, by overwhelming voter approval of a Charter amendment in 2018.
Cummings, the inspector general, brought a gangbuster’s resume to the franchise. She has served in a number of inspector general and prosecutorial positions chasing white collar wrongdoing – in the Maryland State Prosecutor’s office, in Prince George’s County and for the Washington Metro Area Transit System, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s office and a clerkship in the U.S attorney’s office.
Pratt, for her part, has displayed remarkable staying power in her position as comptroller due, for the most part, to her formidable support among black women who make up the majority of the voter base in Baltimore. Pratt, until now, has rarely, if at all, had competition for the comptroller’s job and has enjoyed automatic, effortless returns to the office for six terms.
But sheesh! In this year of weird, wacky and wild twists and turns, anything can happen – and be accepted as normal.