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Mobtown Beat

Baltimore City Comptroller Joan Pratt runs unopposed again

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Joan Pratt has been Baltimore City’s comptroller since the O.J. Simpson trial dominated the airwaves and the world was waking up to the internet. First elected in 1995, Pratt has weathered three elections since, with barely any opposition. This year, once again, she is the only candidate for comptroller in both the primary and general elections.

Pratt, who is primarily responsible for conducting audits of city agencies and overseeing city real estate transactions, occupies the third most important position in city government. She sits on the Board of Estimates as well as several other city boards and commissions as part of her post, and runs her own accounting firm on the side. She is also a member of the influential Bethel A.M.E. Church, to which former Mayor Sheila Dixon belongs, and has reportedly contemplated running for mayor in the past.

Pratt initially agreed to an interview for this article but requested a list of questions. Upon receiving them, she declined the interview. In a fax, she cited “unbalanced reporting” in past City Paper articles. In a follow-up phone call, she said she objected to one question in particular, which made reference to CP articles from 2008 and 2009 describing her connections to an organization called Hollywood in a Bottle, an educational program for kids interested in the entertainment business (“The Company You Keep,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 10, 2008; “Stuck in the Middle,” Mobtown Beat, Aug. 26, 2009). Pratt filed incorporation papers on behalf of the group’s publicist, Synergy Communications, and a Synergy spokesperson told City Paper in July 2008 that Pratt was the program’s biggest sponsor.

The next month, Lawrence Reeves, co-founder of the program, was indicted on drug-trafficking charges involving the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel. Pratt says now, as she told City Paper at the time, that she does not know Reeves. “You’re asking me to respond to something where I don’t know the person,” she said in the recent phone call. “I was asked to donate some money to give to some underprivileged kids to purchase them some T-shirts. And you’re talking about something that happened four years ago.’” Reeves was, in fact, indicted three years ago; he is set for sentencing on Sept. 8. No evidence has emerged that Pratt was aware of or involved in any criminal activities associated with the case.

Pratt has kept a relatively low profile as comptroller, but on occasion publicly speaks her mind. In 2009, she opposed Dixon’s proposal to create a quasi-governmental “land bank” to dispose of city-owned vacant land. Pratt called it financially risky; the idea has since been shelved. That same year Pratt was the sole member of the Board of Estimates to oppose leasing city-owned land near M&T Bank Stadium to developers of a slots parlor. According to The Baltimore Sun, she said at the time that such a facility would bring social problems and was unlikely to draw out-of-state visitors.

The comptroller’s web site shows that her office made around $7 million in audit recommendations from fiscal year 2007 through fiscal year 2010. The site does not indicate how many of those recommendations were actually implemented.

As of Pratt’s latest campaign finance report—the next filing deadline falls just after City Paper goes to press—Pratt had about $149,000 in her campaign kitty, nearly all of it from previous election cycles. In past elections, despite the lack of opposition, Pratt has spent thousands of dollars on consultants, particularly political operative Julius Henson. Henson is facing criminal charges and a federal lawsuit brought by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office for alleged election-law violations involving robocalls made to Democratic homes last fall, when he was Republican gubernatorial hopeful Robert Ehrlich’s campaign aide.

Henson was Pratt’s campaign manager in 1995, and received at least $10,000 from her in 2007. Given the charges against him, Pratt is unlikely to have hired Henson this time around, but their relationship has been a long one. After taking the comptroller’s seat in 1995 with Henson’s help, Pratt hired him as the city’s chief real estate officer, and then promptly forced him to resign after criticism of favoritism. The pair co-owned multiple properties in the mid-1990s.

This February, a settlement was reached in a lead paint poisoning case involving a property apparently unrelated to Henson, but once co-owned by Pratt. The case goes back to 1996, when a 3-year-old tenant of the Northwest Baltimore property was diagnosed with lead poisoning. Records showed that Pratt and her partners had failed to register the property and fix it up under the state’s lead poisoning prevention law. When these lapses were revealed, Pratt told the Sun they were due to an “oversight.”

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