Baltimore’s inspector general is reviewing a vote cast by city Comptroller Joan Pratt that helped facilitate the sale of 15 city-owned lots to an influential church where she has long been a leading member.
Pratt cast the vote approving a land disposition agreement between the city and Bethel A.M.E. Church for the lots on Nov. 1, 2017, as one of five members of Baltimore’s Board of Estimates, which approves various city spending decisions each week. She did not abstain from the vote, board minutes show.
Pratt has been a member of the church for more than four decades, is one of its trustees and has done taxes pro bono for its non-profit community center, Bethel Outreach Center, for at least four years.
The church, whose congregation has included other high-profile Baltimoreans, including former mayors Kurt Schmoke and Sheila Dixon, received the lots at a steep discount. The spending board agenda said the appraised value for the 15 properties on Etting Street and W. Lafayette Avenue, behind the church, was $1,000 apiece, or $15,000 total. But the city was offering to sell off each one for just $1–$15 in all–so the church could “consolidate and pave the lots for off-street parking for its congregation.”
The board agenda noted Bethel has been caring for the lots for 20 years, with its caretakers, security staff and an outside contractor clearing debris, removing snow and monitoring them at a cost of more than $35,000 to the church. It made the case that selling them would “stabilize the immediate community… eliminate blight, and… add to the local economy by providing jobs on a temporary basis.”
The voting members–Pratt, then-Mayor Catherine Pugh, then-City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Department of Public Works Director Rudy Chow and City Solicitor Andre Davis–moved to approve the deal as part of the board’s routine agenda, a list of items that don’t receive individual attention or discussion at board votes. The sales were finalized about three months later, according to property records.
The move effectively eliminated any potential tax revenue the city could recoup on the 15 lots, since they were gifted to a tax-exempt religious organization.
A neighbor who lives nearby on Druid Hill Avenue, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to compromise the investigation, said they were also contacted by OIG investigators about the transaction and Pratt’s involvement with the church last week.
A source at City Hall familiar with the matter, but not authorized to speak on it publicly, also confirmed the inspector general’s office is investigating the sale.
A mistake, the comptroller says
The Board of Estimates regularly approves spending decisions en masse on the routine agenda without discussing them individually; matters that do receive individual attention are categorized “non-routine” and are often discussed publicly when the board meets Wednesday mornings.
Pratt said in January that her staff regularly flags items in the routine agenda that may pose a conflict of interest for her, and which she should therefore abstain from voting on. But in this case, she said her team did not catch the proposed sale to Bethel A.M.E.–they failed to search for “A.M.E.” with periods in the acronym, she said–and it slipped by her team unnoticed.
She chalked it up as an honest mistake.
“I always abstain on things that relate to Bethel because that’s my church,” Pratt said. “It was just an oversight. I always abstain. Somehow it didn’t get caught.”
The OIG’s review of the parking lot sale comes amid a broader investigation of contracts that came before the Board of Estimates over a roughly two-year period when Pugh was at the helm, which the Baltimore Brew reported in April. That review requested details on spending board members’ outside employment, business ownership and board memberships with private, educational and religious organizations.
A spokesperson for the comptroller said Wednesday that Pratt has not been contacted by the OIG about the parking lot deal, specifically. For the larger investigation, “the inspector general’s office asked for board affiliations, and she is in compliance with that request,” the spokesperson said.
Pratt’s role at Bethel is well-documented. A 2015 story in The AFRO said that year marked her 40th as a member. She’s also served as a steward there in the past, and her spokesperson divulged that she is one of the church’s trustees.
The city’s comptroller of six terms has also volunteered her financial services for Bethel A.M.E. regularly. Tax filings for Bethel Outreach Center, listed at the same address as the church itself, indicate her accounting firm Joan M. Pratt CPA & Associates has done the organization’s taxes annually from 2014 through at least 2017, the latest year for which documents were available. Pratt said she volunteered those services.
Pratt and Dixon are among the powerful group of Baltimoreans connected with the 234-year-old institution on Druid Hill Avenue, which Janette Smith, steward and director of church growth, said has an active membership of 1,331. Typical Sunday service attendance ranges from 650 to 750 between Bethel’s two morning services.
(Previous estimates of as much as 17,000 were not “reflected in church attendance or other engagement,” Smith said she found when she began working for Bethel in 2016. Those former members are still honored by being listed an “archived historical roll,” she said.)
The church for years has been a battleground for political endorsements from its leadership. Through its relationship with developer The Cordish Cos., it was able to secure a cut of the profits from Pier Six Pavilion’s overhaul in 2006. Bethel’s influential longtime pastor, Rev. Frank M. Reid III, who gave endorsements in major elections and helped broker that deal with the Cordish Cos., left to become a bishop for the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2016.
As of 2017, its subsidiary Bethel Outreach Center counted Councilman Eric Costello (11th District), Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Cynthia Jones, since-retired Baltimore Police commander Lt. Melvin Russell, Upton Planning Committee executive director Wanda Best and Cordish Cos. COO Zed Smith as members of its board, per tax filings.
Pratt in January noted the likelihood that the transaction would have gone through even if she had abstained from the vote.
“It was gonna pass anyway. It wouldn’t have made a difference,” she said. “I didn’t have to vote on it. It was on the routine agenda, so it just kind of got approved with everything else.”
Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming said she could not confirm nor deny whether her office is looking into the sale of the parking lots.
Rev. Patrick Clayborn, who took over as Bethel A.M.E.’s pastor after Reid left, said Monday that he has “no knowledge” of the investigation into Pratt’s vote and has not been contacted by the OIG.
Word of the broader review by Cumming’s office surfaced in April after Pugh’s infamous “Healthy Holly” scandal, which began with The Sun’s exposé on her sales of what turned out to be nearly $800,000 worth of her self-published children’s books to the University of Maryland Medical System and politically connected businesses and nonprofits.
Reporters eventually dug up that Pugh had voted to approve lucrative contracts for organizations and companies that purchased copies of her literature promoting children’s fitness and nutrition.
Some of the church’s neighbors along Druid Hill Avenue were upset to learn about the property deal–namely that it had already been approved by the city before they learned of it.
In a letter signed by about a dozen people sent to the council president’s office in November 2018, they voiced concerns about Pratt’s role in the vote, and about losing the city-owned lots that they’ve used as auxiliary space for years–parking during street-cleaning days, storing vehicles used for commercial businesses, hosting birthday parties and more.
The neighbors had asked that the spending board review the prior approval of the sale, but they said the council president’s office responded that it was already a done deal.
As for their concerns, church officials maintain parishioners were already parking in the lots during Bethel’s well-attended Sunday services and other events, and that the sanctuary has already been caring for them for years.
And neighborhood groups pushed back against the claim residents weren’t informed about the sale, saying they did the proper outreach. At a community meeting at the church this past January—roughly 15 months after Board of Estimates approved the deal—Marble Hill Community Association president Atiba Nkrumah said his organization had surveyed neighbors about the project in 2017.
Upton Planning Committee member Jules Dunham Howie (also an elder at Bethel and a Bethel Outreach Center board member, per its most recent available tax filing) made a similar argument, saying Bethel had shared its plans for community review on multiple occasions in 2017. Both the Upton Planning Committee, which serves as an umbrella group for six community associations, and the Marble Hill Community Association thus gave the project their blessing.
Addressing individual concerns about parking, Bethel officials said they would let neighbors park there during street-cleaning days and snow emergencies. (Abandoned cars and commercial vehicles would be prohibited moving forward, they said, noting they “should not be parked there even now.”)
Rev. Clayborn concluded the gathering by characterizing the conflict as “growing pains” that they could move past. He preached the need for both sides to work together.
“I do believe that the church does not want to inhibit the growth of the residents, and I do believe that the residents don’t want to inhibit the growth of the church. We all want to grow. The question is, How do we grow together?”
Bethel A.M.E. officials detailed the plans to neighbors at the January meeting, showing a paved parking lot with squat, brick walls around two sides and no gate restricting access to the front.
Nearly a year and a half out from when the $15 sale was finalized, the church hasn’t moved on its construction plans. Smith said Bethel has been raising funds for the project, which is “in progress.” As of this morning, the properties behind the Druid Hill Avenue church remain unpaved, albeit used for their intended purpose as parking.
This story has been updated with additional comment from Bethel A.M.E. steward and director of church growth Janette Smith. A previous version of this story incorrectly said Kurt Schmoke is an active member of the church, when in fact he has not been a member since 2016. We regret the error.
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