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Baltimore Comptroller Voted To Sell City Lots To Her Church, OIG Calls It A Conflict Of Interest


  An administrative oversight from Baltimore City Comptroller Joan Pratt led to official greenlighting the sale of 15 city-owned lots to her church for $15, according to a Wednesday report issued by Baltimore Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming.


Pratt is a congregant and board member at Bethel African Methodist Episcopoal Church in West Baltimore’s Upton neighborhood.  She is also one of five members of the Board of Estimates, which governs city spending. She voted for the sale in November 2017. The Office of the Inspector General report called the move a conflict of interest.


“The investigation found administrative oversights in the office of the comptroller during the pre-BOE process led to Comptroller Pratt’s vote in favor of the deal,” the report said.


“The comptroller relies on her staff to identify from which BOE items she should be recused,” it continued. “Comptroller Pratt agreed she should have abstained and that the responsibility for the voting oversight ultimately rests with her.”


The report cited a July news article by the Baltimore Fishbowl in which Pratt spoke about the vote.


“She said her team did not catch the proposed sale to Bethel A.M.E. – they failed to search for ‘A.M.E.’ with periods in the acronym, she said – and it slipped by her team unnoticed,” the news site reported.


“I always abstain on things that relate to Bethel because that’s my church,” Pratt told the Fishbowl. “It was just an oversight. I always abstain. Somehow it didn’t get caught.”


Thanks to votes of approval from the other four BOE members, the sale would’ve gone through without Pratt’s vote.  


The lots sold to Bethel at AME were valued at a baseline of $1,000 each. The church said it spent thousands of dollars over 20 years to maintain the vacant lots, which were used for parking.


The city sold each one for just $1 so the church could “consolidate and pave the lots for off-street parking for its congregation.”


City administration staff told the OIG that it is not uncommon for Baltimore City to sell a property at a discount to buyers who have previously paid for the property’s upkeep. 


Inspector General Cumming suggested that a centralized list of abstentions be created, maintained and kept handy to avoid similar situations at the BOE going forward. 

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.
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