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Accountabilityby Ian Round10:03 amMar 11, 20200

Joan Pratt has been paying phone bills from her campaign account for at least 15 years

The longtime comptroller has used nearly $28,000 of her campaign funds on phone bills since 2005 – nearly a third of the money her campaign has spent

Above: In 2012, Comptroller Joan Pratt holds a ViOP phone that she wanted installed in city offices. Her extensive billing of cellphone usage to her campaign committee raises red flags. (Mark Reutter)

In 2014, Baltimore City Comptroller Joan Pratt did hardly any fundraising, judging by her campaign account, which accepted one donation the entire year:

She got $250 from the American Minority Contractors and Business Association.

That same year, her campaign account paid $2,013 in phone bills.

Three years later, in 2017, Pratt received four contributions totaling $3,750, and she spent almost the same amount on phone expenses: $3,792.

Those campaign phone expenses included $142 to purchase a phone at Staples and $574 for another phone from AT&T.

Over the past 15 years, her campaign has spent $27,584.13 on phone bills, all of them to AT&T, Cavalier Telephone and Talk America, according to an analysis by The Brew of all the reports available online.

Given how few donations she’s received and their high dollar value, it’s unlikely the phones were used to solicit potential donations.

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Embroiled in a competitive reelection race for the first time in years, the six-term incumbent drew criticism recently for her negative ads targeting opponent Bill Henry for $6,500 in meals he expensed to his City Council account incorrectly 10 years ago and ultimately repaid.

Pratt’s total campaign spending for phones is nearly four times that amount.

Meanwhile Pratt has had to parry questions about her part ownership of 2 Chic Boutique, which laundered money for then-mayor Catherine Pugh, and her conflict of interest in the city’s sale of 15 lots to her church, Bethel AME, for $15.

Multiple attempts to reach Pratt, campaign treasurer Pamela Burney and campaign chair Lafayette Carr have been unsuccessful.

Little Other Spending

Campaign records on file with the State Board of Elections indicate that Pratt has consistently charged her campaign for two phone accounts.

She has had an account with AT&T since 2008. She had an account with Cavalier Telephone from 2005 to 2015, then switched to Talk America, which she last paid in July 2019.

The phone bills account for 29% of the money she’s spent since 2005. Over half of the expenditures she’s reported—173 out of 330—have been on phone bills.

She has reported spending nothing on media, printing, rent or postage since at least 2005, the earliest year for which her annual filings are available online.

She has, however, tapped her campaign funds to make certain donations.

In 2017, her committee paid $1,000 to the Helping Up Mission, $375 to St. Cecilia Roman Catholic Church and $1,500 to the Baltimore City Foundation. Her committee also made two payments to Burney totaling $1,150 for “accounting.”

As of this January, she had $365,000 on hand in her account.

Few Opponents Until Now

Pratt’s lack of campaign spending, aside from the striking phone expenses, has a simple explanation: she never faced any serious challengers.

When she was a newcomer to politics in 1995, she raised $192,000 in the primary race against Julian Lapides, according to the Baltimore Sun. Jacqueline McLean, the previous comptroller, had resigned a year earlier amid a corruption scandal.

Since that first campaign, Pratt has raised only a few thousand dollars most years, including nothing in 2010.

She has raised more as elections approached, even when competition was scarce.

But after Henry announced his candidacy last spring, Pratt raised more than $100,000, which may be more than she’s collected in any year since she first ran.

It was also the first time her fundraising costs exceeded her cell phone billings to the campaign committee.

Other Brew Reporting:

• Pratt says she was unaware of money laundered through the boutique she co-owned with Pugh (2/13/20)

Comptroller Joan Pratt is faulted for voting to sell city land to her church for $15 (2/5/20)

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