Potential conflict-of-interest votes by Pratt total $48 million, Inspector General finds
Six-term comptroller has long kept a lengthy “abstentions list,” but hasn’t always abstained from voting, OIG report says
Above: Comptroller Joan Pratt at a Board of Estimates pre-meeting. (Fern Shen)
Comptroller Joan M. Pratt voted for at least $48 million in city spending items and other actions benefiting companies and individuals named on her “abstentions list,” maintained to prevent Board of Estimates votes that are conflicts of interest, Baltimore Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming has found.
Over a three-year period, Pratt voted 30 times for “contracts, grants and vendor prequalification amounts involving organizations and individuals from which she self-identified as needing to abstain from,” noted the report released by the Office of the Inspector General today.
The 123-page report follows up on a February report in which the OIG found a clear conflict of interest in Pratt’s 2017 vote to approve the sale of 15 city-owned lots for a total of $15 to her church, Bethel AME.
That investigation led to the discovery of a list maintained by her staff of scores of entities – from well-known foundations like Associated Black Charities (ABC) to obscure electrical contractors and waste recyclers – on whose votes Pratt was to recuse herself.
Pratt told the OIG she considers her abstentions list to consist of “anyone she has personally performed work for past or present, anyone who has received tax work from her business, Joan M. Pratt, CPA & Associates, and any trustee position held within an organization.”
Pratt Response Delayed
The veteran comptroller, who has not yet provided a statement to The Brew, had been asked by the OIG to respond to its findings by March 10.
Pratt asked for an additional two weeks to March 25, according to Cumming’s report. The OIG then asked for a response by yesterday, March 18.
Yesterday Cumming’s office received a request from Pratt’s attorney, William Martin, asking for another extension, saying “the COVID-19 pandemic has raised unexpected challenges” and noticing that his D.C. office is currently closed.
COVID-19 “should not be used as a reason to extend the deadline” – Isabel Cumming.
Cumming denied that request and released the report today.
Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, Cumming noted that “it has been publicly reported that despite a directive from the Mayor of Baltimore” requiring that all telework-eligible employees are required to work remotely . . . Comptroller Pratt has ordered all staff to continue to report to their physical work locations.”
“So this should not be used as a reason to extend the deadline,” Cumming wrote, in a reply to Martin.
Millions in Contracts
Focusing on the period between Dec. 7, 2016 and October 30, 2019, the OIG reviewed Board of Estimates agendas, minutes and videos, and checked them against the corresponding abstentions lists, noting that they changed from week to week.
The investigators found votes by Pratt on numerous agenda items for entities that appeared on the list, including:
• A December 14, 2016 vote in favor of awarding $966,000 to Chesapeake Parking Associates as the prime contractor for two city-owned parking garages.
• Two votes in 2017 in favor of pre-qualifying one company, American Contracting & Environmental Services, for a total of $32.7 million in city contract work.
• Then a vote for a $2.9 million extra work order (EWO) for the same company, American Contracting. In 2018, Pratt voted for a “transfer of unused funds” to cover that extra work order.
• The report also details votes to provide more than $5.5 million in grant funding to four non-profit organizations: ABC, Union Baptist Church School, Legal Aid Bureau (where Pratt worked before she was elected comptroller in 1995) and Coppin Heights Community Development Corporation.
• Another vote approved $55,000 in federal and private grants to the House of Restoration, a for-profit child care center.
• The OIG found a number of irregularities in the votes involving Horton Mechanical Contractors and Banks Contracting. Both companies appeared on Pratt’s abstentions list, but were later removed.
Lengthy Potential Conflicts List
In addition to votes taken suggesting specific conflicts of interest, the abstentions lists – or “LOAs” as the OIG refers to them – are themselves are striking.
The practice goes back years, and the six-term incumbent’s list is by far the longest of any member of the Board of Estimates.
The December 14, 2016 LOA attached to the OIG’s report is typical:
Then-Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young lists 17 entities to abstain from.
Then-City Solicitor George Nilson lists seven, and newly-elected Mayor Catherine Pugh and then-Public Works Director Rudy Chow lists zero.
Pratt, on the other hand, lists 117 entities that could present conflicts, including some high-profile businesses like Allen & Son Moving and Storage.
The politically-connected West Baltimore company moved Mayor Pugh into her Ashburton house at a discount in 2017, The Brew has reported.
Company President Allen P. Burrus was subsequently sold a city-owned condominium in Ashburton at a steep discount, The Brew also reported.
Also on the list is ABC or Associated Black Charities, a foundation which purchased some of Pugh’s Healthy Holly books and has been criticized for delays in the release of funds for the Children & Youth Fund it manages for the city.
There are little-known LLCs, daycare centers, construction companies, a welder and a Westport auto body shop on Pratt’s abstentions list.
Multiple churches are also listed, including several – the Empowerment Academy, Empowerment Academy, Empowerment U Inc., Empowerment School – that appear to be connected to Baltimore’s Empowerment Temple church.
Read the Full OIG Report:
Other Brew Reporting on Pratt:
• U.S. Labor Department opens investigation of Baltimore comptroller’s office (3/19/20)
• Joan Pratt has been paying phone bills from her campaign account for at least 15 years (3/11/20)
• 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)
• Joan Pratt discloses the income she earns from businesses doing business with the city (2/4/20)
Pratt’s Response to the Media
(Received After Deadline)