GOP asks probe into role of Lighthizer in contract Ex-aide's wife got $35,200 award

July 21, 1992|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- The Maryland Republican Party has asked for an ethics investigation into Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer's role in awarding a "no-bid" state contract to a consulting firm owned by the wife of a former aide.

A firm owned by the wife of Francis J. "Zeke" Zylwitis, who worked for Mr. Lighthizer when the secretary was Anne Arundel County executive, received a $35,200 contract from the state without going through competitive bidding procedures.

The May 12 contract calls on Davidsonville-based MI Associates to review security at the Transportation Department. The company is owned by Margaret Zylwitis, and employs Mr. Zylwitis and three others.

Republicans are alleging cronyism, but a spokeswoman for Mr. Lighthizer said the contract is "perfectly legal" and above board.

"I think [the GOP's allegation] is a political ploy to discredit someone who served as an elected Democratic official," said Rebecca Reid, the department's spokeswoman.

Mr. Zylwitis served as Anne Arundel County's criminal justice and corrections officer under Mr. Lighthizer, who was county executive from 1982 to 1990. Gov. William Donald Schaefer subsequently named Mr. Lighthizer to the transportation post.

The state can legally ignore competitive bidding requirements if a contract is considered an emergency matter.

Republicans, however, say the Zylwitis contract did not qualify for special status.

"It is my opinion, and I believe that of thousands of Marylanders, that a review of this nature does not constitute an emergency," Republican Party Chairman Joyce L. Terhes wrote in a recent letter to the State Ethics Commission.

"Since Mr. Lighthizer's appointment, the [department] has hired seven of his former Anne Arundel County appointees besides Mr. Zylwitis."

In an interview, Ms. Terhes said: "This is the type of activity that has made people across the country distrustful of government."

MI Associates received a contract to evaluate security at the state Motor Vehicle Administration after an employee issued a fraudulent driver's license last winter, she said. Dontay Carter, 18, allegedly obtained the duplicate license in the name of a 37-year-old man whom he is charged with abducting and killing.

Deputy Transportation Secretary Stephen Zentz decided to expand the security review to include other agencies, Ms. Reid said. It made sense to award the second contract to the Zylwitis firm because it already was privy to "sensitive" security information and could conduct the review more quickly than if bids were solicited, she said.

Mr. Zylwitis declined to comment on the awarding of the May contract or the value of the earlier contract.

John E. O'Donnell, executive director of the Ethics Commission, could not be reached yesterday. He usually declines to confirm, or comment upon, requests for investigations.

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