At a forum Monday night, candidates for mayor were asked a straight-up yes-or-no question about Baltimore’s embattled comptroller, Joan M. Pratt:
“Do you believe the comptroller should resign?” reporter Adam Bednar of the Daily Record asked.
He prefaced the question by noting that Pratt voted to approve the sale of 15 city-owned lots to her church for $1 apiece, as documented in a recent report by the city’s Inspector General that found her actions a “conflict of interest.”
He also noted last week’s disclosure by the U.S. Attorney that a clothing consignment shop Pratt co-owned with former Mayor Catherine Pugh was used as a money laundering operation to hide businessman J.P. Grant’s illegal $20,000 payment to Pugh.
A CPA who performed the business’s tax returns, Pratt told The Brew she knew nothing about Grant’s payment, which was not reported as income on the shop’s federal tax returns, but was used for deducting business expenses, according to prosecutors.
“Yes,” said candidate Rikki Vaughn, CEO of his own company, which operates restaurants in eight states.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” he continued. “We cannot continue the same recycled individuals in office saying they love us, want to hug us, then stabbing us in the back.”
In so saying, Vaughn joined candidate Thiru Vignarajah, who last Friday declared that Pratt should resign.
Vignarajah did not attend the forum, produced by DMVDaily News’ Hassan Giordano and held at Function Coworking Community on Harford Road.
“We need the t’s crossed”
A few in the audience also answered “yes” to Bednar’s question. Moderator Wanda Keyes Heard shushed them, saying “the question was for our candidates.”
Then came the answers from other mayoral hopefuls, who declared their commitment to honest government, but stopped well short of calling for the veteran comptroller’s resignation.
(Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young declined to attend the forum, according to organizers, while state Senator Mary Washington canceled due to pressing business in Annapolis.)
“When we get to the point of calling for resignation, we need the t’s crossed and the i’s dotted,” said T.J. Smith, former spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department.
He went on to denounce the mechanics of political fundraising – taking campaign money from “the same old cast of characters mentioned in federal indictments.”
“You should just feel icky, taking that money,” Smith told the audience, noting that Councilman Ryan Dorsey recently “had to turn in $42,000 because it was icky.”
Next up was City Council President Brandon Scott, who sidestepped any mention of Pratt and followed his earlier script of stressing his legislative efforts to pass good government measures.
“I hold myself to the highest standard,” Scott said. “What we have focused on is closing those loopholes they were using.”
MORE ON BALTIMORE’S SIX-TERM COMPTROLLER:
• Joan Pratt discloses the income she earns from “persons doing business with the city” (2/4/20)
Other candidates emphasized their qualifications as bearers of high ethical standards.
“I have been through two very rigorous Senate ethics reviews,” said candidate Mary Miller, a T. Rowe Price executive who served in the U.S. Treasury under President Barack Obama.
What has been reported about Pratt is “very troubling,” Miller said, but “I believe in due process. We deserve to get all the facts.”
“A godly person”
Former Mayor Sheila Dixon also invoked “due process” when taking up the microphone.
“I said, ‘Joan you need to speak for yourself about whatever is going on,’” Dixon said. “I know Joan. She’s a good person. She’s a godly person. She should speak for herself.” (Both Dixon and Pratt are members of Bethel AME Church that was given the 15 city lots for $1 each.)
“I know that citizens have to gain some trust, but I also believe in redemption and giving a second chance,” said Dixon, whose own mayoral campaign is in many ways an exercise in atonement.
(In a 2009 corruption trial, Dixon was found guilty of taking gift cards intended for poor children and was forced to resign as mayor.)
Carlmichael “Stokey” Cannady, an anti-violence advocate and mediator, said Pratt “should be fully investigated and when the results are finished, if she is guilty, she should resign.”
(No one on the panel noted that Scott and other members of the City Council did not wait for criminal charges to be filed against Pugh to call on her to step down as mayor last spring.)
The sole Republican candidate, Catalina Byrd, was firm in her refusal to criticize Pratt.
Expressing caution “about the way I speak of another black woman,” Byrd said, “I have a lot of respect for her and her career. I’ve known her a long time.”
“She does have a primary opponent,” Byrd said, “but I think it is unacceptable for me to be the one to say that she should step down.”
At that, Heard announced she was going to “take the moderator’s prerogative and move this discussion on.”
Citing “justice” and “due process,” the retired Circuit Court judge went on to chastise Bednar for asking the question.
“This is a forum for the individuals that are seated in front of you,” Heard chided.
“They are here to entertain your questions and they are present to respond on their behalf and that’s where we need to keep it.”
“I would ask,” she said, addressing the journalist, “that you not address individuals personally by name that are not present and not able to respond.”