Comptroller Joan Pratt’s vote to approve the 2017 sale of 15 city lots to Bethel A.M.E., a church where she is a member, was a conflict of interest, and the transaction did not receive proper scrutiny at public meetings, according to a new report by the Office of the Insepctor General.
Baltimore Fishbowl first reported on the OIG’s investigation into the vote by the Board of Estimates, of which Pratt is one of five members, 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.”
Pratt has been a member of the church since 1976 and is one of its trustees. She also does Bethel’s taxes pro-bono.
The appraised value of the properties on Etting Street and W. Lafayette Avenue, behind the church, was $1,000 apiece.
Pratt previously told Baltimore Fishbowl her staff did not flag the item on the agenda as a potential conflict of interest because they did not search the name of the church with periods in the acronym “A.M.E.”
“I always abstain on things that relate to Bethel because that’s my church,” Pratt said at the time. “It was just an oversight. I always abstain. Somehow it didn’t get caught.”
Instead, the sale was approved as part of the board’s 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.
In her write-up, Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming said a member of the comptroller’s office, known as the Lead Tech, had kept a running list of abstentions. Staff members would review the upcoming agenda page by page leading up to its publication on Monday afternoon.
Before the Nov. 1, 2017 Board of Estimates meeting, however, the Lead Tech was absent. 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.
“Comptroller Pratt agreed she should have abstained and that the responsibility for the voting oversight ultimately rests with her,” the report said.
But Cumming cast Pratt’s previous explanation to Baltimore Fishbowl about the vote as “unclear.” While the abstentions list did not have periods in “A.M.E.” and the agenda did, as Pratt described, no employees her announcement before the Nov. 1, 2017 that she would abstain from voting.
“The confusion around the process by which abstentions are to be made and to whom the responsibility falls to ensure the comptroller abstains from conflicts of interest, led to the comptroller’s vote for the sale,” the report said.
The Lead Tech hasn’t maintained the list since April 2019, the report said, instead relying on Board of Estimates members to provide lists of possible conflicts of interest before each meeting. The OIG recommended that a central list be kept.
Additionally, the investigation concluded the city failed to follow protocol and hold public meetings with the communities that might be impacted by the sale of city-owned land. The Department of Housing and Community Development, Office of the Mayor and Office of the City Council President make up a Real Estate Committee that must vote on such deals before they appear before the Board of Estimates, and one factor is community input.
“In the case of the Bethel AME sale, the OIG found that the Committee approved the proposed sale without any meetings taking place,” the report said. A checklist from the meeting on the sale listed community input as “N/A.”
In response to today’s report, Pratt wrote a letter taking issue with some of the findings, particularly the revelation that her staff did not recall her verbally saying in 2017 she would abstain from the Bethel vote.
“With the attenuation of time, it is unrealistic to expect persons to recall what I said or did not say about any abstention on that date,” she wrote.
She said her pattern of going over the agenda page by page was evidence she made such a proclamation. She also said she is not overly reliant on her staff to identify potential conflicts.
In a separate letter, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s chief of staff, Kimberly Morton, said the mayor’s office is reviewing standard operating procedure for land deals.
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