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by Mark Reutter9:22 amMar 19, 20200

U.S. Labor Department opens investigation of Baltimore comptroller’s office

Joan Pratt’s longtime deputy, Harriette Taylor, opts for retirement in wake of federal probe

Above: Comptroller Joan Pratt and her deputy Harriette Taylor review documents at yesterday’s Board of Estimates pre-meeting. (Fern Shen)

An investigation of wage and hour practices by Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt has been opened by the U.S. Department of Labor, multiple sources tell The Brew.

At least a half dozen members of Pratt’s office were interviewed several weeks ago by an investigator from DOL’s Baltimore field office.

The employees were questioned about a longtime practice at the office in which employees were required to work late one or two times a week to prepare the agenda for the Board of Estimates.

City employees are supposed to be paid overtime or awarded comp time if they work more than 36 hours per week.

Some employees at Pratt’s office were instead required to work the extra hours, even those who had reached their maximum earned compensation, meaning any additional hours were not paid.

”This was done for years, and finally someone is looking into it,” said a person with direct knowledge of the investigation.

Pratt today contradicted what multiple sources told The Brew – that she was personally interviewed by a DOL investigator about the issue of employee hours.

She said she was not aware of any DOL investigation of her office. Asked whether members of her staff had been interviewed, she refused to say.

“You need to talk to the Department of Labor,” she said.

“The staff work from 8:30 to 4:30,” Pratt said. “On Thursdays, they work from 8:30 to 6:30 when necessary so the [Board of Estimates] agenda can be prepared, and they receive two hours of comp time.”

Federal labor investigator Gwendolyn Pfeiffer has not yet returned a call seeking comment.

Deputy Comptroller Retiring

Yesterday Bernice H. “Harriette” Taylor announced to staff that she will retire as deputy comptroller and clerk of the Board of Estimates on April 1.

Taylor has been the board’s clerk and Pratt’s top aide since 1996. She is one of the highest paid employees at City Hall, earning $167,000 last year.

Taylor put in her retirement request shortly after she was interviewed by the DOL as part of the wage and hours probe, The Brew was told by two sources.

Pratt confirmed that Taylor is leaving, but said she had given her notice back in January.

“Harriette notified me she intended to leave in January,” Pratt said. “She gave me 90 days notice she is retiring.”

Yesterday at the BOE meeting, Taylor could be seen in the hallways carrying a paper cup and bottle of cough medicine, which she placed on the table at the board’s pre-meeting.

Pratt’s Ties with Pugh

The DOL investigation comes at an awkward time for Pratt who – seeking her seventh term as comptroller – is locked in the most competitive battle of her political career.

She faces a well-known and well-financed councilman, Bill Henry, in the Democratic Party primary.

Pratt was tied to the corruption scandal of former Mayor Catherine Pugh last month when federal prosecutors revealed that a clothing consignment shop she co-owned with Pugh was used to launder an illegal $20,000 payment to Pugh by businessman J.P. Grant in 2016.

Pratt, who runs her own CPA firm in addition to being city comptroller, acknowledged to The Brew that she prepared the tax returns for the shop, but said she was unaware of the Grant payment.

The shop’s federal tax return did not include the $20,000 payment as income, but some of the $20,000, used to pay shop costs, was deducted as business expenses, prosecutors said, reducing the business’s taxable income.

OIG Probe, Robocall

Pratt was also faulted last month by Baltimore Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming for approving, as a member of the Board of Estimates, the sale of 15 city-owned lots to her church for $15.

As a longtime member and trustee of Bethel A.M.E. Church, Pratt’s vote was a conflict of interest, Cumming said.

A detailed OIG report also questioned the lack of community input over the sale of the property, as required by city procedures.

The comptroller said her staff was at fault for not alerting her that the Bethel item was on the agenda. If properly alerted, she said she would have certainly abstained from the vote.

Earlier this month, Pratt attracted further attention with a campaign robocall and mailers targeting Henry and highlighting a 10-year-old newspaper story about his expense reporting.

The mailers used a photo of Henry from the “Baltimore Beat” without permission.

Asked later if the calls and mailers were prepared by Julius Henson, a longtime associate who who was convicted of conspiracy to violate election laws in connection with an infamous 2010 “relax” robocall, Pratt refused to say.

Fern Shen contributed to this story. 

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