Firm has ties to 2nd city official

Utech was client of comptroller

March 17, 2006|By DOUG DONOVAN | DOUG DONOVAN,SUN REPORTER

The company at the center of a City Hall contracts controversy because of its family ties to Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon has a link to another top elected official: Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, who once prepared the firm's taxes.

The company, Union Technologies, has come under scrutiny since The Sun reported last month that it employed Dixon's sister and that the council president participated in votes and debate on the firm's city contracts, in apparent violation of Baltimore's ethics rules.

Since then, Baltimore officials have stripped the firm of its city minority business certification after ruling its downtown address was a "virtual office" with a telephone and mailbox.

Documents obtained yesterday by The Sun show the company, also known as Utech, listed Pratt's accounting practice as its accountant in state minority certification forms in December 2000. State Department of Transportation documents also indicate that Utech's president, Mildred Boyer, listed Joan M. Pratt & Associates as her company's CPA in February 2003.

Pratt said her records indicate that she prepared the company's taxes only one time, in 2002.

Utech came before the five-member Baltimore Board of Estimates, which approves city spending and is controlled by Mayor Martin O'Malley, a total of three times in 2004 and 2005.

For Dixon - who is chairwoman of the board - city ethics law required her to have abstained because of her sister's employment with Utech. But she voted each time. She also did not abide by the requirement to disclose her sister's job until after The Sun's initial article last month.

Pratt, also a member of the board, voted on the Utech contracts, too. Her votes, however, do not violate the ethics law because she was no longer preparing Utech's tax returns.

"The only tax return that I have for them in my file is for 2002," Pratt said. "To my knowledge, I haven't done anything since 2002."

While Pratt did not breach ethics rules, she acknowledges she fell short of her own standard of abstaining from board votes on contracts awarded to her previous clients.

"The ones I can remember - I will abstain from them," Pratt said. "If I've done something [for a company], then I'll just abstain."

Pratt said she did not recognize the company when it came before the board because she knew the firm only as Utech.

"[Boyer] never told me that Union Technologies was the name of her company," Pratt said. "I probably would have abstained if I knew it was Union Technologies. All my files show Utech."

But records obtained by The Sun show that the firm came before the board once listed as Utech, and twice as Union Technologies. Pratt voted all three times.

Boyer did not return phone calls.

When asked whether any of her current accounting clients hold city contracts, Pratt said: "I don't think I'm doing business with anyone that does business with the city."

She said she would not disclose her list of clients because the information is "confidential."

"I don't know how many clients that I have," she added. "I never counted."

Pratt earns $80,000 a year as comptroller, a position known as the city's fiscal watchdog with responsibility for Baltimore's auditor, real estate portfolio and municipal telephone exchange. She said she has owned her accounting business since 1982. As required by the city's ethics law, she discloses her company, in the 1500 block of Havenwood Road, on her financial disclosure form filed with the Board of Ethics.

She said some clients mistakenly list her as their CPA because of past work, even if she is no longer employed by them.

In June 2004, a former Pratt client, Andre Mellerson, complained to the city that his electrical company was no longer getting referrals for minority subcontracting work because he refused to use no-show workers recommended to him by a former official in the mayor's minority business office.

Mellerson said the city's official reason for not referring him was that he did not keep proper financial records. In his written complaint to the city, Mellerson responded by writing that Pratt "manages my record keeping and taxes."

"Several times, Ms. Pratt let me know about contracts approved by the Board of Estimates that may result in subcontracting opportunities," Mellerson wrote. "She referred me to the Mayor's Office of Minority Business Development."

Pratt said at the time that Mellerson's firm was not a client but that she had done personal tax work for him.

Ethics officials have said that there is no prohibition against elected officials' performing private work as long as they do not use their public office to benefit private clients.

Pratt said she works every Saturday and at night during the week, for a total of three to four days a week. She said she prepares tax returns for clients and also helps companies apply for state minority certification. She said she does not help clients obtain certification from the city's minority business office.

"I work very late, 10 or 11 p.m.," Pratt said yesterday in a telephone interview near 4 p.m. from her accounting office. She said she went to her private office yesterday after leaving a pension board meeting outside City Hall, where the comptroller's office is

Bobbie Walton, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, commended Pratt for abstaining from voting on city contracts with previous clients. She said Pratt's vote with Utech did not seem to indicate a broader pattern.

But, Walton said, "If she doesn't know that some of the companies are doing business with the city, then how does she know there is no perceived conflict?"

doug.donovan@baltsun.com

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