Schaefer rival, Pierpont, got state health job But budget cuts will cause contract to be canceled

September 29, 1991|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- As a Republican candidate for governor last year, Dr. Ross Z. Pierpont needled Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer as a "big spender" who is too free with taxpayers' money and too eager to dole out jobs to political insiders.

But Dr. Pierpont says those labels do not apply to his case, even though the Schaefer administration managed in these desperate economic times to set aside as much as $77,480 to hire the 74-year-old surgeon to help out at the state health department.

Dr. Pierpont got the job, he admits, through a recommendation from Harry J. McGuirk, a longtime acquaintance and former state senator from South Baltimore who now is a key political adviser on Governor Schaefer's staff.

But the retired physician, now emeritus chief of surgery at Maryland General Hospital, says he was hired because of his medical qualifications, boasting "without blushing" that "I probably know more about the business of health than anybody in this state."

Besides, he added, "I don't need the job."

It is a good thing, too, because as soon as a reporter inquired about the contract Dr. Pierpont has had since May 22, health department officials announced they intend to terminate it at the end of this month to save money. The original contract would have expired June 30, 1992.

The state faces a budget deficit estimated as high as $450 million. Governor Schaefer is expected early this week to announce drastic cuts, including sharp reductions in programs and personnel in the health department.

Administration officials said the $77,480 "cap" on the 13-month contract was misleading because Dr. Pierpont is paid by the hour and is only paid when he works. From June 5 to Sept. 3, according to health department records, Dr. Pierpont put in for 361 hours at his $37.25 hourly rate, for $13,447 in pay.

Calls to the health department about the Pierpont contract were referred to Frank Traynor, the governor's press secretary. He said the best way to describe the doctor's role was as "vacation relief" for another health department physician who was on leave due to illness. In her place, Dr. Pierpont was expected to help license and certify nursing homes and other health care institutions, and give the department medical advice, if needed, he said.

Mr. Traynor said Dr. Pierpont also was working with Dr. Chinnadurai Devadason, director of the Local and Family Health Administration, to prepare a report on local health services as part of a department-wide, state-federal planning effort known as "Healthy People 2000."

Larry L. Leitch, deputy health officer for Carroll County, said Dr. Pierpont recently spent about six hours in Westminster discussing the county office's mission and problems.

"I think he helped us refine our way of looking at things," Mr. Leitch said, noting that Dr. Pierpont offered tips drawn from his observation of health-care systems in other nations. "He's a very interesting gentleman, with definite ideas about the health system in America."

The ebullient Dr. Pierpont, whose nearly perennial but always unsuccessful campaigns for Congress, governor and mayor of Baltimore have made him a well-known name in Maryland politics, said that his association with the state health department dates to the mid-1960s. He said that he has had standing offers from several Maryland governors to work for the state.

Although he has served on several state advisory panels on health issues, he acknowledged this is the first state job he has taken for pay.

"They have always wanted me to do other things," he said. "To be honest, I have always done what I've done as a public service, because I thought it ought to be done. I haven't done it for the money."

Acting partly at the request of Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, Dr. Pierpont made an 11th-hour leap into last year's Republican gubernatorial primary. His candidacy nearly cost William S. Shepard the party nomination and clearly kept Mr. Shepard distracted from raising campaign funds and launching an immediate attack on Governor Schaefer.

But both Dr. Pierpont and Mr. McGuirk insisted politics played no role in his landing the state health department contract.

"That had nothing to do with it," Dr. Pierpont said. "I said bluntly that I was disappointed in [Mr. Shepard] taking his wife as a running mate, that it demonstrated a flaw in his judgment and shows he shouldn't have been governor. I had supported him originally."

Mr. McGuirk, whose official duties normally involve the activities of "independent agencies" rather than major departments such as health, said that when he learned the department "was looking for a retired doctor with experience," he proposed Dr. Pierpont and two or three others.

Although Dr. Pierpont is a Republican and has run against Mr. Schaefer at least twice, the two are alike in several ways: Both are same-generation Baltimore natives with lifetimes spent in state politics. Both opposed Mr. Shepard; both are political allies of Mrs. Bentley; and both are frequent critics of Mr. Schaefer's successor as mayor, Kurt L. Schmoke.

Yet during his primary race last year, Dr. Pierpont said of Mr. Schaefer: "The guy running the state now never paid for anything out of his own pocket. He paid with money we gave him [in taxes]. . . . Don Schaefer's gotten where he's gotten by picking people's pockets."

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