Comptroller defends her appointment But mayor says issue 'casts a pall' over city

March 28, 1996|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Acknowledging that she is "very good friends" with Julius Henson, Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt said yesterday that their relationship would not affect her evaluation of the man she named last week to oversee the city's $3.2 billion real estate portfolio.

Disclosures in The Sun that the two traveled abroad together three times in the past three years raised concerns about the propriety of the appointment, prompting Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to say the issue "casts a pall over City Hall" and "allows people to be replaying the whole McLean controversy" -- a reference to the previous comptroller, Jacqueline F. McLean, who left office in a corruption scandal.

Ms. Pratt promised that Mr. Henson, her former campaign manager whom she hired as the city's real estate officer without interviewing anyone else for the job, will "be held to the same standard as every one else in this administration."

But she quickly added that she thought Mr. Henson had done a "fantastic job" in his first week in the $79,400-a-year post.

"He's only been on the job one week, and he's already briefed me on savings the city could have almost to the tune of $1 million. I think that's outstanding," Ms. Pratt said.

Shared trips

The Sun reported that Ms. Pratt took Mr. Henson along on trips she made as a trustee of the city's pension system to China and Hong Kong in 1993 and to South Africa in 1994. The two also traveled together to Jamaica last month, the article said.

At a news conference yesterday, Mr. Schmoke said that the Henson appointment did not violate city law but that Ms. Pratt should deal directly with questions about the friendship.

"Without fullest possible disclosure of the relationship between herself and Mr. Henson, it can once again cast a cloud over all other offices here at City Hall because it allows the critics to just lump us all into one basket," the mayor said.

"There is an obligation to meet these questions forthrightly," he added.

At first, it appeared yesterday that neither Ms. Pratt nor Mr. Henson would talk about it.

Mr. Henson initially offered a series of brusque "no comments," while an aide to Ms. Pratt said it was unclear whether the comptroller would be available to talk to reporters.

When Ms. Pratt finally agreed to answer questions, the aide excluded a reporter from The Sun from the session.

Later, however, both Ms. Pratt, 44, and Mr. Henson, 47, agreed to separate interviews.

Both acknowledged making the three overseas trips together -- though Ms. Pratt denied the statements of a West Baltimore businessman that she slept on Mr. Henson's shoulder on the plane flight to Jamaica or that he had his arm around her waist on the beach at Montego Bay.

Romantic link denied

Ms. Pratt said that she did not now have a romantic relationship with Mr. Henson, with whom she has owned several investment properties.

"If you're asking me is he my boyfriend, no. He's a male friend of mine," she said.

But she declined to say what their relationship was when she took Mr. Henson as "sexist."

"Men appoint females to positions all the time and nothing is said. It so happens that I was in a position to appoint a person that I felt was qualified. The Sunpaper has made an issue of it," she said.

Both said little about any of the trips.

"I went to China and South Africa as a guest, at no cost or expense to the citizens of Baltimore or the pension board," Mr. Henson said. "The Jamaica trip was a pleasant trip, which was sorely needed," because he was in the midst of managing Del. Elijah E. Cummings successful March 5 primary campaign for the 7th District congressional seat.

Ties seen as irrelevant

Mr. Henson said the nature of his relationship and travels with Ms. Pratt were irrelevant.

"I don't think the public is interested in who went where and did what," he said.

"Let's find some money and save it. That's what I'm interested in -- saving the city money so we can afford some of the things that are important," he said.

Mr. Henson said that Ms. Pratt "understands that I'm the right guy for this job."

"The only thing I want to do in this job is serve the interest of the people, which has been sorely missing in this building for a lot of years," he said.

Pub Date: 3/28/96

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