Intrigue at City Hall

Higher profile: Ambridge's firing lays groundwork for Comptroller Pratt's assault on Mayor O'Malley.

January 10, 2001

CITY REAL ESTATE Officer Anthony J. Ambridge was fired because he ran afoul of his boss' Svengali. That's it, pure and simple.

First, Mr. Ambridge refused in 1999 to run as a spoiler, allowing Martin O'Malley to become mayor. Then he declined to become a shrill critic of the O'Malley administration, although that was what his boss, City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, wanted.

On Friday, when Mr. Ambridge was abruptly handed his walking papers, the well-regarded former City Council member seemed genuinely surprised. Few others were.

What came next, though, was quite unexpected: Ms. Pratt named John D. Hubble as real estate officer. He's the same discredited political hack who in 1976 resigned his elected post as Circuit Court clerk in order to avoid indictment for neglect of his official duties. Mr. Hubble will now lend a hand to Ms. Pratt, who in recent weeks has adopted a sharper tone toward Mayor O'Malley. With the help of Mr. Hubble, she appears ready to raise the volume.

Mr. Hubble is comfortable with that kind of work. He started his political career taking orders from James H. "Jack" Pollack, the late Northwest Baltimore boss. Later, he played political footsie with conservative State's Attorney William A. Swisher and other largely forgotten machine politicians.

It is sad that Mr. Hubble now surfaces in City Hall in a position of trust. That this is happening says legions about Ms. Pratt and her guru, Julius Henson.

Mr. Ambridge did an impressive job overseeing municipal real estate dealings. He systematized leases and scrutinized property transactions, saving taxpayers an estimated $8 million. His independence -- whether due to principles or naivete -- cost him his job.

Mr. Henson has wanted his fingers on the lucrative municipal property dealings ever since he got Ms. Pratt to appoint him as her first real estate officer. That didn't last long because Baltimoreans were scandalized. Voters should be equally aghast at the appointment of Mr. Hubble.

Mr. Henson has apparently convinced himself that Mr. O'Malley will run for governor in 2002. That's why he seems to be laying the groundwork for a Pratt candidacy for mayor. Blunders like the Hubble appointment can only increase her name recognition -- but not the way Mr. Henson intended.

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