It's Good to Be the Comptroller
Though No One Is Challenging Comptroller Pratt, She's Keeping Political Consultant On Payroll
On paper, Board of Estimates meetings look like tedious affairs. The agenda, some 70 pages of it, lists contracts up for renewal, resolutions to support local charities in their bids for state grant money, and people to be hired for government jobs. In practice, the five-member board runs through the items quickly. Last Wednesday's meeting took only a few minutes, as the five-member board approved every item in one go (with some minor modifications). Afterward, City Comptroller Joan Pratt, who had been silent throughout the meeting, spoke briefly to a reporter about giving an interview for this article.
"I have to decide if that's what I want to do," she said before turning away. "Sometimes it's better to leave well enough alone."
Things are going well for Pratt, who has occupied the third most powerful office in city government since 1995. In addition to sitting on the Board of Estimates, the city comptroller oversees city audits and real estate transactions. This year, as in her last election in 2004, Pratt is running unopposed. Barring a write-in campaign, she seems certain to retain her office.
Despite her lack of opposition, Pratt has spent thousands of dollars on consultants this year, according to her campaign finance reports. Most of the payments were fairly small--$236 for "consulting" to a woman who turned out to be a Langley Park hair and makeup artist, and $1,500 to Washington-based consulting firm National Telecommunications Services earlier this year, when Pratt was widely reported to be considering a bid for the mayor's office. Her expenditures jumped in mid-August, however, with a payment to Baltimore political consultant Julius Henson for $10,000.
Henson is credited with Pratt's rise in 1995 from largely unknown accountant and mayoral appointee to her current position. In that election, with Henson as her campaign manager, she bested longtime state Sen. Julian Lapides. She quickly drew criticism, however, by hiring Henson as the city's chief real-estate officer, then firing him amid charges of favoritism.
In the mid-1990s, the pair owned properties together, under the corporate name Henson and Pratt Inc., changed in 1997 to Henson Inc., with Pratt listed as the resident agent. The corporation was changed again in 2005, as Henson became the resident agent, at the address of Pratt's accounting firm, Joan M. Pratt CPA and Associates. According to real-estate documents for a pair of houses the two owned, Pratt assigned her interest in the properties over to Henson in 1995. Last December, Henson sold the houses for $100 each to another past consulting client, former city councilwoman Lisa Stancil, who unloaded one of the properties the following month for $17,000.
Pratt says she no longer has business ties to Henson.
Larry Sabato, an author and director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, says the use of political consultants has spread over the years from the federal level down to local elections. In an e-mail, Sabato wrote, "In the 1950s through 1960s, consultants were used almost exclusively for presidential campaigns or governor/Senate in the largest states. Then in the 1970s consultants became universal for governor/Senate in all 50 states. In the 1980s contenders for lower statewide elected posts and U.S. House candidates acquired political consultants. In the 1990s the phenomenon spread to state legislative and local elective officials. Now City Council candidates in medium-sized cities have a pollster! Many keep their consultants on retainer."
Herb Smith, a political consultant and professor at McDaniel College, says getting paid to consult on an unopposed race sounds like "sort of a dream job." He says it is not unusual for candidates for city office to employ consultants--he has consulted on City Council races for the past few election cycles, and this year is working for 4th District candidate Bill Henry--but that it is strange to pay a consultant for an uncontested race. "It's unusual when it's unopposed," Smith says.
In addition to Pratt's campaign, Henson is consulting for the mayoral bid of Keiffer Mitchell Jr. and City Council candidates Emmett Guyton and Liz Smith, both of whom are running against council members appointed by the council to fill vacancies earlier this year.
In years past, Henson has proved controversial. In 2002, he was fired from the gubernatorial campaign of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend after telling The Washington Post he would show Prince George's County voters that Townsend's opponent, Robert Ehrlich, was a "Nazi."
In response to a question about Henson's work for her campaign this year, Pratt says she consulted with him frequently while deciding whether to run for mayor. In the end, she says, "I just decided not to do it."
In 2004, running unopposed for the same office, she paid Henson's firm, Politics Today, $11,500 for consulting, and in 1999, facing light opposition, Henson and his firm received more than $13,000 from Pratt. Henson has not returned calls to his office with regard to this article.
The lack of competition hasn't stopped the contributions from coming in to Pratt's campaign, either. According to the Maryland State Board of Elections, she has almost $145,000 in her campaign coffers. In August she added more than $5,000 in donations, from contributors including the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and the owner of a Baltimore painting company.
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