Damage to Pratt's image unclear 'Jury is still out on her,' despite Henson's resignation

April 14, 1996|By JoAnna Daemmrich and Eric Siegel | JoAnna Daemmrich and Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Joan M. Pratt swept into office as Baltimore's comptroller on a promise to restore public trust as the city's fiscal guardian.

In Baltimore, the comptroller long has been regarded as the financial conscience of the city, the champion of common folks, rather than just an accountant who monitors government spending.

So when in her most visible act after her inauguration, Ms. Pratt hired her campaign manager and close friend Julius Henson, she unleashed a torrent of criticism. Everyone from political supporters to talk show hosts deplored installing him in a $79,400-a-year job as the city's real estate officer. Many urged her to get rid of him immediately.

Now that Ms. Pratt finally has forced Mr. Henson to resign, the question is: Can she recover from the damage to her image as a fresh face at City Hall?

"The jury is still out on her," said Baltimore Del. Howard P. Rawlings. "She was smart in making the decision to cut her losses. The bottom line is, people are going to judge Joan Pratt on the entirety of her administration, whether she keeps her promise that it will be a smooth-running office and that she will be a voice of fiscal responsibility."

Ms. Pratt drew credit Friday as Mr. Henson cleaned out his desk and left after his three-week stint overseeing the city's $3.2 billion real estate portfolio.

Some questioned why it took her so long to remove Mr. Henson and blamed her political inexperience. But a number of elected officials, business leaders and community activists said the first-time comptroller made the right move to recover from what had become a political embarrassment.

"I felt she stayed with this appointment too long," said state Del. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a supporter of Ms. Pratt. But, "She has a good three years to put her house in order," he added. "This is a very vital office to city government," said Arnold Jolivet, president of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association. "If she shows she can restore this office and be an advocate for the public, I think the public would give her the opportunity."

For Ms. Pratt, the struggle to repair the tarnished image of Baltimore's comptroller's office is heightened by the expectations that accompanied her ascent as a political novice to the third-highest post in city government.

A poised certified public accountant, Ms. Pratt, 44, promised during her campaign to "redeem that which had been lost" with the downfall of Jacqueline F. McLean in a corruption scandal. Mrs. McLean, the first black and the first woman to become comptroller, was convicted of stealing money in office and resigned in 1994.

Ms. Pratt decisively beat a popular state senator with a spirited, well-financed effort that was orchestrated by Mr. Henson. After her victory, Inez Carrington, owner of a hair salon, said, "She is a fantastic businesswoman, and that's what I liked."

Some of Ms. Pratt's supporters stuck by her during the controversy over her appointment of Mr. Henson. But many others said they felt betrayed. City Hall was deluged with calls, and several City Council representatives said they were questioned constantly about the issue.

"There were a lot of people who put their support into this election, and I think they are disturbed at how the whole thing got out of hand," said the Rev. John L. Wright, president of the United Baptist Missionary Convention and Auxiliaries.

Even before Ms. Pratt's inauguration in December, speculation had begun at City Hall on whether she planned to hire Mr. Henson, although she had declared that he would not play a role in her administration. But at the start of the year, Mr. Henson went to work for Elijah E. Cummings, speaker pro tem of the Maryland House of Delegates, and ran his successful Democratic primary campaign for the 7th District congressional seat.

It came as a surprise to many -- including a member of her transition team and a Schmoke administration official who told her it would be a bad idea to hire Mr. Henson -- when she quietly did just that last month.

Her choice was immediately controversial. In contrast to the city's previous real estate officers, who had significant commercial experience, Mr. Henson had made a living from running a string of small contracting companies and renting houses he bought at fire-sale prices.

In the week after his appointment, The Sun reported that Mr. Henson and Ms. Pratt took three trips abroad together in the past three years, including one last winter to Jamaica.

The Sun later reported that Mr. Henson had run into trouble on a city contract and had been sued numerous times in the past decade for failing to perform services or do work properly. He resigned Thursday after the city and comptroller's office released separate -- and sometimes conflicting -- accounts of his professional background in response to requests by news organizations under Maryland's public information laws.

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