BALTIMORE (WJZ) — The Office of Inspector General has found that Baltimore City Comptroller Joan Pratt had a conflict of interest when voting to give city-owned lots to a church in the Upton community.
In 2017, the Board of Estimates voted to sell 15 vacant lots, valued at $1,000 each, for $1 apiece to Bethel AME, a church that Pratt has been a member of since 1976.READ MORE: Newman, Mendoza Will Be ESPN’s 1st All-Female Baseball Duo
The lots, which had been vacant for over a decade, are situated between 1301 and 1325 Etting Street and 505 and 509 West Lafayette Street in the Upton community, the report said.
The complaint alleges that Comptroller Joan Pratt’s vote to approve the sale to the church was a conflict of interest because of her membership with the church.
It went on to say that Bethel AME doesn’t let residents use the lots for additional parking as they had done before the sale.
The OIG found that the comptroller voted in favor of approving the sale of City property to the church. They also found that administrative oversights of the Office of the Comptroller during the pre-BOE process led to Comptroller Pratt’s vote in favor of the deal, and found a reliance by the comptroller on her staff to properly vet BOE items for recusal.
The comptroller did acknowledge that she should have abstained from the vote because it was a conflict of interest.
“It was an administrative oversight,” Pratt said.
Representatives of Bethel AME said in interviews with OIG that access will remain for residents to use the lots for additional parking, except on Sundays when the lot is needed for church members coming to services.
This all began when the Department of Community and Housing Development received an application from Bethel AME to buy the properties through the Vacants to Value program in May 2017, though none of the lots the church applied to were posted on the DHCD website when they submitted the applications.
The OIG said they got conflicting information about why the church had applied if the City was not offering to sell the properties. The church had said the City inquired with them if they would be interested in buying the land, but DHCD employees said the church came to them.
A DHCD official said the agency doesn’t approach private parties to sell the vacant lots, which Comptroller Pratt confirmed to the OIG.
The lots had been used as auxiliary parking for community residents and members of Bethel AME.
The baseline value for a vacant lot in Baltimore City is $1,000; however, the lots were sold to Bethel AME for $1 each, costing them $15 total.READ MORE: New Innovative Academic Building Opens At Loyola University Maryland
Bethel AME submitted that the church had assumed a custodial role of the lots for 20 years and performed upkeep services, incurring over $35,000 in expenses.
DHCD and the Department of Real Estate did confirm to OIG that it’s not unusual for the City to sell property for less than the assessed value, especially when the proposed buyer has paid expenses directly related to the property before they buy it.
The church proposed to develop the lots by changing them from unpaved, unofficial parking into formal spaces with pavement and fencing.
That construction was set to begin 90 days after the sale, but when the OIG visited the lots on October 15, 2019, they found the construction hasn’t started- to which the church responded they couldn’t start construction until ground rent issues are resolved.
DHCD offered no explanation why the church has kept the land after two years of having it, and failing to satisfy the agreement.
The OIG then found that the Real Estate Committee approved the proposal without any community meetings.
When the OIG looked at Comptroller Pratt’s involvement in the sale, they found that she is a member of the church’s board of trustees, and her personal business, Joan M. Pratt, CPA & Associates, has prepared the church’s tax returns before.
The report noted a Baltimore Fishbowl article from July 2019, which had Comptroller Pratt speaking about the vote, stating, “I always abstain on things that relate to Bethel because that’s my church.”
Comptroller Pratt told the OIG that she relies on her staff to make sure she properly abstains from BOE items that present a conflict of interest and that her staff should recognize items on which she’s conflicted based on previous meetings.
She told Fishbowl that her vote was an oversight because of her staff’s failing to search on the abstentions list for “Bethel A.M.E.” with periods in the name. But several Office of the Comptroller employees told the OIG that even when the abstentions list was used, the comptroller and he rstaff went page-by-page through the agenda during pre-BOE meetings.
The OIG learned that she would verbally announce items she planned to abstain from during those meetings, which she confirmed.
Pratt ultimately agreed the responsibility for the voting oversight rests with her, though she told the OIG she verbally announced her intention to abstain when employees in that meeting do not recall that proclamation.
They also found the allegation that Bethel AME would ban residents from using the lots for personal parking to be inaccurate. Community leaders and church officials told the OIG that there was no ban and residents still use the parking lot when it is available.MORE NEWS: Classroom Concerns: 16,559 Students Quarantined, 4,042 Confirmed Student Covid-19 Cases In Maryland Schools
The OIG recommended a central list of abstentions be maintained for members of the BOE.