Comptroller, appointee share personal ties Documented travels together raise ethical questions

March 27, 1996|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer John Rivera contributed to this article.

When Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt named former campaign manager Julius Henson to manage the city's $3.2 billion real estate portfolio, she described him as the most qualified professional for the job.

But Ms. Pratt didn't reveal last week that she and Mr. Henson have a personal relationship going back at least three years.

During that time, when she was traveling on behalf of the city pension system, she took him along on trips that included stays at a safari bush camp in South Africa and three nights in the bustling city of Hong Kong, documents show.

In addition, a West Baltimore businessman, who contacted The Sun because he was upset at Mr. Henson's appointment to the job, said he was on a round-trip Air Jamaica flight to Kingston with the two officials last month. "On the plane going down, she slept on his shoulder," he said.

He also saw them walking on the beach at Montego Bay. "I remember him putting his right hand around her waist," said the businessman, who asked not to be identified but provided a sworn affidavit to The Sun.

In appointing Mr. Henson to the $79,000-a-year job as the city's real estate officer, Ms. Pratt directly contradicted a campaign pledge that he "will not be part of the comptroller's office."

Last week, acknowledging that she had never interviewed anyone else for the job, Ms. Pratt said she selected Mr. Henson because he ran her campaign effectively and had good ideas for the job.

At no time did she mention that she and Mr. Henson, who have also owned several properties together, had a personal relationship. In fact, when asked about the subject, she declined to comment.

"I don't see what that has to do with my job as comptroller," she said.

But the disclosures of their travels together -- documented by copies of checks, internal pension board memorandums, interviews and a sworn statement -- raise new ethical questions about the propriety of Ms. Pratt's appointment of Mr. Henson and her judgment in hiring him.

Experts in professional and governmental ethics in Baltimore and elsewhere said the situation is troubling.

"The things you recited to me would make reasonable people snicker," said Paul J. Smith, a former chairman of the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission.

"She has the responsibility to not give rise to the suspicions of reasonable people," he added. "The public's not to be expected to close their eyes and put their heads in the sand."

'At least ill-advised'

Alfred H. Guy Jr., director of the University of Baltimore's Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics, said the appointment was "at least ill-advised."

"You're sending out very bad signals that you have not considered public perception," he said.

On Monday, Ms. Pratt declined to comment on trips she has taken with Mr. Henson.

"In my opinion, your articles are not balanced, and they are unfair," she said in a brief telephone interview.

"My comment to you at all times will be no comment," she added.

Mr. Henson also declined to comment.

"I don't have any comment whatsoever," he said.

Yesterday, Ms. Pratt, 44, and Mr. Henson, 47, failed to respond to written requests for further elaboration that were hand-delivered to their offices.

Ms. Pratt's trips with Mr. Henson to China in 1993 and Africa in 1994 were among several made by the 12 pension trustees to attend seminars and conferences on various aspects of investing.

At the time, Ms. Pratt was a certified public accountant serving as one of two mayoral appointees to the pension board. She was elected to the city's third-highest office last year, filling a position that had been vacant for more than a year after her predecessor, Jacqueline F. McLean, resigned in a corruption scandal.

Ms. Pratt wrote $1,000 checks from her personal account to a San Francisco-based company that sponsored the trips to cover the "guest fee" for Mr. Henson, documents show.

The pension system paid a total of $6,418.55 for Ms. Pratt's expenses, but it did not pay any of Mr. Henson's, officials said.

'Part business, part pleasure'

Ernest J. Glinka, administrator of the Baltimore City Retirement Systems, which oversees $2.5 billion in assets, said it is "not unusual" for trustees to be accompanied by guests or spouses on the trips, which he described as "part business and part pleasure."

On the trip to Hong Kong and China on Sept. 7-16, 1993, for example, board members Harry Deitchman and Harry X. Peaker took along their wives, and Ms. Pratt was accompanied by Mr. Henson, according to documents on file with the pension board.

Three other pension board members traveled without companions.

The trip, dubbed "China From Wall Street to the Great Wall," included stops in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Ms. Pratt's reimbursement from the pension board for the trip was $4,228.55, records show.

The expenses were $1,971.45 for airfare, $1,697.10 for eight nights in hotel double rooms, $60 for limousine rides and $500 for incidentals.

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