Mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah argued Thursday that Mayor Brandon Scott has gravely mismanaged Baltimore’s influx of $641 million in federal pandemic aid, handing out multimillion-dollar grants to political allies while risking forfeiture of funds as federal spending deadlines loom.

Scott, a first-term Democrat, has distributed the city’s hundreds of millions of dollars in pandemic aid across dozens of different agencies and nonprofits and nearly as many projects. His investments range from almost $50 million for fostering nonpolicing approaches to violent crime to affordable housing, blight remediation, meal programs and internet.

Tens of millions of the total allocation has gone toward financing work by nonprofits and other local organizations, an approach Vignarajah argued the mayor has deployed in an effort to curry political favor across the city for his reelection.

“Taking $641 million and essentially flushing it down the toilet to repay donors and developers and pad agency budgets and give millions of dollars to your favorite nonprofits as you gear up for reelection,” the attorney said Thursday in a press conference at his downtown law office, “is the biggest, most unforgivable mistake of this mayor’s administration.”

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So far, the Scott administration has gotten its allotment of American Rescue Plan Act funding out the door slowly. Baltimore faces an end-of-2026 deadline to spend its $641 million, as well as a more pressing end-of-2024 deadline to have it all earmarked. Officials with the city’s pandemic aid office have warned for months that meeting those deadlines could require pulling money back from slow-developing projects and directing it elsewhere.

What those changes could look like remains unclear, but the city’s pandemic aid director stressed to City Council members last week that having all of the money earmarked by the end of the year “is for sure going to be a challenge.” Shamiah Kerney, director of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Programs, added that she expects to have an assessment completed by the end of March, after which the city could begin to publicize changes to its spending plan.

As of the end of December, the city had spent just under 30% of its $641 million. About half of the total allotment had been obligated — meaning the city has approved contracts and invoices — leaving just 10 months to lock in the remainder of the spending plan. Baltimore’s obligation rate lags behind other large cities around the country, said Glencora Haskins, senior researcher for the think tank Brookings Metro, on Thursday. Nationwide, Brookings tracking has found that 68% of the funding distributed to cities of over 250,000 people had been obligated by the end of September — an earlier benchmark than is reflected in the Baltimore data.

Vignarajah, a former Maryland deputy attorney general and four-time candidate for citywide office, is running a publicly financed campaign for the mayor’s office in a crowded field that also includes businessman Bob Wallace, the incumbent Scott and former Mayor Sheila Dixon. Scott and Dixon remain front-runners in the race, while Vignarajah’s political career has been dogged by allegations that he harassed and abused staff in his former roles in the Maryland Office of the Attorney General and the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, as reported by The Baltimore Sun.

Among the American Rescue Plan Act grants singled out by Vignarajah, the Scott administration gave $5 million for the redevelopment of Lexington Market and $2 million to the labor union 1199 SEIU, to support frontline workers. Thibault Manekin, the founder of Lexington Market developer Seawall, is a longtime donor to Scott and most recently gave $5,000 to his reelection campaign, while 1199 SEIU backed Scott in 2020.

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Vignarajah also criticized the $15 million investment Scott used to launch Clean Corps, the community cleaning program that has become a flashpoint for some who argue more money should have gone to the city’s Department of Public Works to restore services that have lagged since the pandemic.

In a statement, Scott’s campaign dismissed Vignarajah’s criticisms as a gambit to get media attention since he no longer has the backing of David Smith, the Sinclair, Inc. executive chairman and new Baltimore Sun owner whose family members previously donated to Vignarajah. Smith has put his money behind a super PAC supporting Dixon. Scott’s campaign pointed to national recognition the Scott administration has received for its management of its American Rescue Plan funds and argued their investments have driven a decline in homicides, supported long-neglected rec centers and playgrounds and helped expand affordable housing.

”For all of Mr. Vignarajah’s pretend concern, he offered no viable vision for how he would use this funding — which seems to be becoming a pattern of his campaign.” said Scott campaign manager Nicholas Simões Machado.

Scott has used more than $12 million of the pandemic package to stand up the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Programs, an administrative team tasked with overseeing American Rescue Plan Act spending and ensuring compliance. The office publishes monthly reports to City Council outlining its breakdown of pandemic aid spending by agency and organization and maintains a public dashboard on spending progress. The recovery office fielded hundreds of applications for funding from city agencies, nonprofits and third-party organizations, basing funding decisions on evaluations of potential impacts, risks and equity considerations.

Vignarajah laid out a series of demands concerning oversight of the American Rescue Plan Act spending, including calling for an immediate “forensic audit” of Scott’s grants. The federal money is already subject to several rigorous oversight requirements, including quarterly reports to the U.S. Department of the Treasury detailing grants and progress and is subject to an annual expenditure audit.

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The slow-moving gears of city government, as well as efforts by Scott to support historically overlooked communities, have also posed challenges for the city’s spending goals, however. According to dozens of internal risk evaluations obtained last year by The Baltimore Banner, roughly 38% of the city’s assessed grant recipients were marked as “Medium/High Risk” of running afoul of federal compliance standards, including most of the agencies with the largest allotments of the city’s millions.

Vignarajah also called on Scott to stop obligating funds after the Democratic primary in May, in case the mayor doesn’t win his bid for reelection. In the event that Scott is voted out of office this May, Vignarajah argued that the mayor should allow the winner to convene a public commission to reprioritize the remaining stimulus money and call a special session of the Board of Estimates to earmark the plan in time for the end-of-year deadline.

Though Vignarajah stressed a need for a more publicly driven process to determine how the city spends its American Rescue Plan Act funds, he said his own preference would have been investing in infrastructure projects whose benefit lasts long beyond the expiration of the federal windfall. He pointed, among other examples, to the repurposing of an old K-Mart in Phoenix, Arizona, as a workforce training center and Cleveland’s $21 million plan for a waterfront redevelopment project.

If elected, the attorney said he would appoint a special counsel in his first 30 days to investigate “mismanagement” of funds and bar campaign donors from applying for city contracts unless subject to a blind bidding process.

Asked whether he’s concerned about the city’s ability to meet the end-of-year obligation deadline, Vignarajah pointed to other problems the city has had managing federal funding, including administrative lapses that nearly forfeited $10 million in federal funding for homeless services last year. But he also expressed confidence about the capacity of city government to get all of the money earmarked by the end of the year.

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“Cities, for better or worse, know how to spend, but they have to have a timetable,” he said. “I am worried because we’ve seen errors of that grave scale before. But I hope and pray that if push comes to shove, we will at least obligate the money instead of giving it back all together.”

Baltimore Banner reporter Emily Sullivan contributed to this article.

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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