As the race for Baltimore City Comptroller heats up, incumbent Joan Pratt says she knew nothing of the $20,000 federal prosecutors say former Mayor Catherine Pugh laundered through the Pigtown store the women co-owned.
“I was not the accountant. I was not the bookkeeper. I was not a check signer. I did not deposit checks,” Pratt said during an appearance Wednesday on WYPR’s Midday.
The politician appeared on the program alongside Councilman Bill Henry, who is running to unseat her in the Democratic primary. Pratt, who is in her sixth term in office, has not faced a serious Democratic primary challenger since 1999.
During the show, Pratt touted her CPA status after her campaign sent out mailers and robocalls referring to a 2010 incident in which Henry incorrectly submitted receipts for meals paid with money from his $5,000 annual council member discretionary funds.
Henry said in 2010 and again on Tuesday that he was not "trying to rip off” the city but rather hadn’t properly documented the meals. The then-freshman councilman submitted receipts but had not known he needed to submit additional information. Years had passed before he was informed of those requirements, so the Democrat decided to repay the money out of his own pocket and move on.
“I said, ‘Alright fine, I’ve learned a lesson here,’ ” Henry said on Midday.
Later on the program, he argued the job of comptroller requires someone more committed to audits and less entangled in major scandal.
The comptroller, one of three citywide offices in Baltimore, acts as the city's fiscal watchdog through broad powers over audits of city agencies and has one of five seats on the city’s Board of Estimates, which governs spending.
During court hearings last month, prosecutors said Pugh solicited a $20,000 campaign contribution from city contractor J.P. Grant. But because he had already donated $6,000 to her campaign, the maximum allowed by law for that election cycle, she asked Grant to cut the check to 2 Chic Boutique, the Washington Boulevard thrift store she co-owned with Pratt.
Prosecutors says Pugh then used the money to make illegal donations to her campaign and to cover some of 2 Chic’s expenses.
Pratt said on Midday that 2 Chic had been operating at a loss “from its very inception” and that she was only responsible for preparing the business’s tax returns based on information received from its bookkeeper.
“No one ever told me about a $20,000 check,” she said.
But Henry questioned her motives for staying with the boutique.
“Why would anyone continue to be a partner in a business that loses money year after year in less?” he asked. “You have separate private interests that are designed to make sure that you pay less in taxes towards the services that the city you're overseeing is providing.”
Pratt said that many city employees maintain side businesses. She also said that J.P. Grant, whose company still maintains a lucrative master lease with the city, had not been charged with any crimes.
The Democratic primary for Comptroller and other city offices is April 28.