Baltimore’s Inspector General, Isabel Cumming, has launched an investigation into the city’s spending board, beginning with a review of contracts that have come before the Board of Estimates over the past two years, The Brew has learned.
The IG has asked the Comptroller’s Office to complete and return basic information about the board by the close of business on Monday, April 15.
In addition, information is requested on the outside employment, ownership of businesses and memberships on the boards of private, educational and religious organizations by BOE members in the last two years.
Comptroller Joan M. Pratt is both the secretary and a member of the board. Pratt said today, through her spokesperson, that she is “in compliance with the IG’s request.”
At its weekly meetings, the BOE typically awards millions of dollars of competitive and single-source contracts to private vendors and consultants as well as acts on employee hires, salary increases and out-of-town travel expenses.
Asked for comment today, Cumming said “I will neither confirm nor deny any investigation.”
Power of the Purse
The time span of the IG’s document review coincides with the administration of Mayor Catherine Pugh, who has taken a leave of absence amid a criminal probe by the Maryland State Prosecutor into hundreds of thousands of dollars in undisclosed payments for her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s books.
Pugh effectively controls the five-member board through her two designees, Public Works Director Rudy Chow and City Solicitor Andre Davis.
Pratt and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young are the other members of the board.
With pay-to-play allegations hovering over Pugh amid the widening City Hall scandal, decisions on big-ticket contracts have come under scrutiny.
The board regularly approves spending across dozens of separate items by a blanket “yes” vote on its routine agenda.
Meetings rarely last more than two or three minutes, and the public has “no standing” to address board members or comment on the proceedings.
The five members, including Pugh, are supposed to abstain from voting on contracts or personnel decisions in which there is a potential conflict of interest.
Pratt and Young routinely abstain from specific items before the board. Mayor Pugh has rarely abstained from any votes during her 28 months on the board.
None of the members make a practice of explaining their votes or abstentions during the brief meetings.
The agenda items that come before the board are controlled by the mayor’s office, and its three elected officials – Pugh, Pratt and Young – are briefed ahead of the time of matters that are considered controversial.
Bumped-up Conduit Contract
Among the contracts under question by investigators is the board’s unanimous vote on December 19, 2018 vote to double – to $50 million – a contract to overhaul the municipal conduits that carry electric and fiber optic cables under city streets.
Moreover, a silent partner in Commercial is Columbia businessman J.P. Grant, who has admitted paying $114,000 to Pugh to help with her “Healthy Holly” books.
A beneficiary of the board’s action: the company that secretly renovated Pugh’s home in Ashburton at a deep discount.
Grant said he gave Pugh a check for $100,000 a month before she was elected mayor in November 2016 and an additional $14,000 through Associated Black Charities.
His company, Grant Capital Management, was handed a $24 million financing contract last week by the BOE to arrange the leasing of 293 cars and trucks over a six-to-10-year period.
With Pugh taking a leave of absence two days earlier, Jack Young acted in Pugh’s place at the April 3 meeting.
Another board action likely to come under scrutiny is its September 2017 vote to award the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Mid-Atlantic States a $48 million contract to provide health insurance to city employees.
Kaiser has acknowledged paying about $115,000 for Pugh’s Healthy Holly between 2015 and 2018.
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