Baltimore’s deputy comptroller, Bernice H. “Harriette” Taylor, spent 12 hours at City Hall last Thursday and Friday collecting and shredding documents after she learned that the U.S. Department of Labor wanted to further investigate the comptroller’s office for wage and hour violations.
The lengthy period of shredding by Taylor, who retired last April shortly after The Brew disclosed the federal investigation, took place in a back room of the second-floor offices of Comptroller Joan M. Pratt.
Acting City Solicitor Dana Moore confirmed today the extent of Taylor’s document destruction, telling The Brew it started on Thursday afternoon and lasted until late in the evening, then resumed again on Friday morning.
“My understanding is that it was approximately 12 hours in all,” Moore said, noting that “it was clearly not appropriate, especially when there is an ongoing federal investigation.”
Notified by DOL
Informed sources say the shredding took place after Danice Lewis, a top Pratt aide, was notified that investigators from DOL’s Wage and Hour Division wanted to interview her about forced, unpaid overtime.
Sources said Lewis met with Taylor on Thursday before Taylor began collecting and shredding documents in the room she had occupied as deputy comptroller. The room is now used for the storage of personnel and other records.
Lewis has not responded to questions about her role in the shredding.
In an interview yesterday, Pratt at first denied any knowledge of the shredding.
She said Taylor had come to the comptroller’s office to retrieve some personal items and apparently walked into City Hall through the front door. (The building is currently in Covid-19 lockdown and not open to the public. Guests are supposed to be met at the front desk and escorted to their appointments.)
Pratt later acknowledged that some documents were found to be shredded. But said she was out of the office on Thursday and was “teleworking” from home on Friday, and therefore had no awareness of the shredding until informed of it by the city solicitor.
Pratt also argued that it was unlikely that Taylor had shredded documents sought by the DOL, saying, “That makes no sense. Why would she wait four or five months to do that? She could have done that before she left [retired] and we would never have known.”
IG Asked to Investigate
Moore said she received “an urgent call” on Friday morning from a City Hall employee about the shredding taking place in the comptroller’s office.
“I was eventually able to communicate with the office, and made it very clear that it had to stop immediately.” She said she has no idea how many documents were shredded or what information they contained.
Minutes after Taylor left City Hall on Friday, agents from the Inspector General entered the office and removed at least one bag of shredded documents from the storage room.
Moore said she has asked Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming to conduct an investigation into “what happened here, and not just what happened, but why it happened.”
Reached this afternoon, Cumming said she could “neither confirm nor deny” that her office is looking into the matter.
Both city and state rules require agency offices and public officials to retain government records.
Last June 30, Moore sent out a memo to “all members of Baltimore City Government” instructing them on proper ways to store records and the importance of “delivering custody and control of all records” to their successors if they are leaving office.
After six terms in office, Pratt lost the Democratic primary election to Councilman Bill Henry. She is set to vacate the comptroller’s office in December.
Pratt has been the recent focus of many investigations and controversies.
She was directly tied to the corruption scandal of former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh 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. (Pratt was not charged with any crime in connection with the case.)
Pratt’s campaign committee has been the recipient of $12,000 in contributions by Judy Grant, who signed the $20,000 consignment check at her husband’s request, and by Grant Capital Management, which had won multiple lease financing contracts approved by Pratt as a member of the Board of Estimates.
Inspector General Cumming has faulted Pratt over the sale of city land to her church, Bethel A.M.E., and criticized the Municipal Telephone Exchange, which Pratt manages, for billing city agencies for never-installed or inactive phone lines.
The Brew recently disclosed that Pratt used her campaign committee as a piggy bank to pay for $28,000 worth of phone bills and authorized cartoonish mailers to try to smear her primary opponent, Bill Henry.
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