Legislators rebut claim of pressure from Mitchell

December 09, 1990|By C. Fraser Smithand John W. Frece

Maryland House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, "pushed" passage of a tax break for race track owner Mark Vogel at a time when Mr. Mitchell and his son were closing a land deal involving Mr. Vogel that brought the Mitchells a $100,000 commission, the Washington Post reported yesterday.

Mr. Mitchell declined to comment on the story yesterday.

But state Sen. Catherine I. Riley, D-Harford, chairwoman of the committee that first killed and then passed tax break legislation for the race track, said Mr. Mitchell exerted "absolutely no pressure at all."

Mr. Mitchell did inquire about the bill's status during a meeting of legislative leaders, she said.

But his concern, she said, seemed to focus on the bill's sponsor, the late Delegate Mark O. Pilchard, who was then seriously ill.

"I know when the speaker really wants a bill," she said, "and nothing he did or said indicated to me that he cared one way or the other what happened to the bill."

She said there was only the one brief mention of the bill and no phone calls or office visits -- the usual signs that a Senate president or House speaker is "working" a bill.

The Senate version of the legislation died when she cast a tie-breaking no vote.

She opposed the bill then, she said, because it would have providedwhat she regarded as a $68,000 "windfall" to Mr. Vogel at a time when off-track-betting legislation was pending.

If the OTB bill had passed, she said, the track's revenue would have risen, and it would not have needed this money, which was to be earmarked for improvements to the track.

"For the Post to say Clayton urged this bill . . . I'm outraged," she said.

The Post story also said that Mr. Mitchell failed to file required documents disclosing that he was engaged in a business deal with Mr. Vogel as required by the state ethics law.

Sources close to the speaker said that while he did file disclosure forms concerning other real estate deals, he did not report this one because there was no direct state interest.

The $100,000 fee received by the speaker and his son came, not from Mr. Vogel, but from the sellers of the land, which is located in the Eastern Shore town of Crisfield.

Mr. Mitchell, who has been under investigation by the state's special prosecutor, has said he does not know the focus of the probe. Asked last week if the Crisfield land deal were a part of the investigation, he said he had no idea.

The Post reported that the Crisfield land sale has come under scrutiny of federal prosecutors, who are looking into a wide range of Mr. Vogel's business deals.

The tax break legislation for Delmarva Downs Racetrack was sponsored by Sen. Lewis R. Riley, R-Wicomico.

"I can tell you very emphatically, truthfully, that Clay Mitchell never did anything to try to promote that bill," he said yesterday.

Lewis Riley says he did his own lobbying, with support from othermembers of the 38th Legislative District on the Lower Shore.

"We felt very strongly about the bill. The track had run down. It was a tourist attraction to our district, for Ocean City," he said.

Mr. Riley said he and the House speaker did not discussed the bill.

The original legislation called for a three-year tax exemption and was then extended twice, the last time in 1989.

Sen. Thomas O'Reilly, D-Prince George's, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which handled the bill, said that he, too, felt no pressure.

"The bill was not discussed in any real way. Everyone presumed it was going to pass.

"If Clay had a serious interest in it, if he was seriously concerned about my vote on it, he would have contacted me. He didn't," Senator O'Reilly said.

He said, "It is true Vogel would have benefited by $68,000. But I think the feeling at the time was that Vogel was so well-heeled, that amount of money meant very little to him personally."

The Post reported concern among some legislators that, even then, Mr. Vogel was a high-flying real estate operator who might drain the track to support other ventures.

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