BALTIMORE — A report released by Baltimore’s Inspector General (OIG) concluded that Comptroller Joan Pratt played a big part in finalizing a sweetheart deal between the city and a church she sits on the board of.
Minutes from the November 1, 2017 Board of Estimates (BOE) meeting show Pratt voted to approve a land disposition agreement, between the Baltimore City Department of Community and Housing Development (DHCD) and Bethel A.M.E. Church, for 15 city-owned lots between1301 and 1325 Etting Street and 505-509 W. Lafayette Avenue.
Pratt remains one of five members on the BOE, which meets weekly to discuss and approve city spending projects. At the same time, Pratt is also a trustee of the church, and has been one of its members since 1976. In the past, Pratt's personal business, Joan M. Pratt, CPA & Associates has prepared the church's tax returns.
The final sale was approved about three months later at a heavily discounted rate.
According to the BOE agenda, the appraised value for the properties was $1,000 each or $15,000 total. But instead, the city offered to sell them to the church at only $1 a piece and $15 total.
The report highlighted that for two decades the lots were vacant, and the church at their own expense of $35,000, cared for them by clearing debris, removing snow, and providing staff monitoring.
In speaking with members of the DHCD and Department of Real Estate, the OIG was told it wasn't unusual for the city to sell property for less when the buyer had put money into the property prior to purchasing.
The OIG found that the church applied to purchase the lots through the Vacants to Value program, which advertises properties the city wishes to sell online. All the lots in question however were never listed for sale on the site, prompting questions as to why the church would apply to buy the properties, if they weren't for sale.
In an interview with the Inspector General, the church said it was the city that reached out to them to gauge their interest in buying the land. But the city said it was the church who contacted them first.
Part of the agreement between the city and church was to pave the lots and put fencing around them. Those renovations were to begin within 90 days of the agreement being finalized, and finished within a year. But as of October 2019, the construction hadn't even began. The church told the OIG that development can't happen until ground rent issues were resolved, while the DHCD offered no explanation.
The OIG also found that before the deal was completed, the Real Estate Committee who's generally tasked with moving the sale forward prior to it getting to BOE, voted without holding community input meetings, which are routinely held before city property is sold. It turns out that community input meetings were held after the BOE had already finalized the sale, essentially making the community's input irrelevant.
While speaking with the OIG, Pratt acknowledged she should have abstained from the vote because it was a conflict of interest.
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Several employees involved in the BOE process told the OIG there was ample opportunity to notice that Pratt's vote could present a conflict of interest.
In her interview with the OIG, Pratt said she abstains from votes involving individuals, businesses, and organizations that she or her firm has done work for.
To ensure that, an abstentions list was maintained to keep track of what conflicts of interest BOE members may have with businesses that come before them.
The list however dissolved in April 19, because the OIG found out BOE members were inconsistently recusing themselves. Now voting BOE members are supposed to provide a list of their own abstentations prior to each meeting.
As of her last financial disclosure filing with the City Ethics Board dated January 31, Pratt didn't disclose being a member of any outside board as required by city bill 19-0376 , which passed August 19 last year.
The entire report can be read below.