OIG: Pratt approved $48 million in BOE contracts from firms on ‘abstentions list’

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Comptroller Joan Pratt at the March 18, 2020 Board of Estimates meeting. Image still via CharmTV.

A more extensive review of Comptroller Joan Pratt’s votes on the Board of Estimates indicates the city’s chief financial officer voted in favor of $48 million in contracts for 10 firms that were on an “abstentions list” because she had previously performed work for the businesses, according to a new report by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

The OIG looked at votes by the city’s spending board from Dec. 7, 2016 to Oct. 30, 2019, and found 30 items for 10 different organizations that appeared at one point on Pratt’s list of businesses that present a conflict of interest.

The largest contract went to American Contracting & Environmental services, who in March 2017 was approved to bid on city contracts totaling $32.7 million. Months later, Pratt voted in favor of giving the firm an additional $2.9 million for an extra work order.

Pratt also voted to approve items for Ball & Breckenridge Trucking, Banks Contracting Company, Copping Heights Community Development Corporation, Economic International Construction Company, Horton Mechanical Contractors, The House of Restoration and Union Baptist Church School–all organizations her office had included on a list of abstentions.

In an unrelated development, the Baltimore Brew reported the U.S. Department of Labor is investigating Pratt’s office over “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.”

Pratt said she was unaware of any such investigation.

Today’s OIG report comes more than a month after the watchdog released its findings on a Board of Estimates vote to award 15 city lots to Bethel A.M.E., a church where Pratt is a member. Baltimore Fishbowl first reported on the OIG’s investigation into the vote to sell the vacant lots for $1 a piece so the church could “consolidate and pave the lots for off-street parking for its congregation.”

That inquiry revealed how Pratt’s office kept tabs on potential conflicts of interest–a staffer known as the Lead Tech had maintained a running list of abstentions. Staff members would review the upcoming agenda page by page leading up to its publication on Monday afternoon.

Unless an item is flagged, it’s often included on the routine agenda, a long list of items that the board’s members–which also include the mayor, city council president, city solicitor and director of the Department of Public Works–typically approve without discussion.

Pratt previously told Baltimore Fishbowl her staff failed to notice the Bethel transaction because they didn’t search the agenda for “A.M.E.” with periods.

In the report, the OIG said the Lead Tech was absent before a board vote in November 2017. Pratt said she told an employee filling in that she planned to abstain from the Bethel sale, but that information was not relayed to the deputy comptroller. The OIG described her explanation as “unclear,” because while the abstentions list did not have periods in “A.M.E.” and the agenda did, no employees remember her announced plans to abstain.

Today’s report reveals “multiple inconsistencies” on Pratt’s votes and the upkeep of the abstentions list. Decisions to abstain “were variable in that one week she abstained, then a few weeks or months later, she did not abstain,” the report said.

There were also instances where an organization would be removed from the conflicts of interest list and then reappear.

Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming wrote in her synopsis of the investigation that she requested a response from Pratt on March 10–typically the subject of the investigation or the agency head whose department was investigated issues a written response to the findings.

Pratt asked for a two-week extension to March 25. The OIG asked for a reply by March 18. On that date, the OIG received a response from Pratt’s attorney, William Martin, asking for an additional 18 days.

The request was denied.

Brandon Weigel

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