Lighthizer and friends

July 24, 1992

At worst, Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer's department may have bent the law when it awarded a $35,000 contract to the wife of his friend without competitive bidding. At best, Mr. Lighthizer reinforced his image as a politician with a penchant for cronyism.

The former Anne Arundel County executive has been good to his friends since his appointment as MDOT secretary two years ago, hiring seven former county government colleagues.

Now, he faces an ethics investigation for granting a no-bid contract to a firm owned by the wife of Francis J. "Zeke" Zylwitis, his former Anne Arundel criminal justice and corrections aide. The Department of Transportation says the deal was perfectly legal because the contract -- for a review of security procedures at several DOT agencies -- was an "emergency" and therefore exempt from the bidding process.

But was it an emergency?

Security did become a hot issue last winter after an employee at the Motor Vehicle Administration issued a fraudulent driver's license to 18-year-old Dontay Carter in the name of a 37-year-old man he is charged with killing. Suddenly, the public was aware -- and afraid -- of lax security measures at MVA. This was an emergency.

But when Mr. Lighthizer decided to hire someone to evaluate the MVA's problems, he treated the contract like any other. He hired Mr. Zylwitis' wife's firm -- after the company won the contract fairly through competitive bidding.

If the need for a review of MVA security wasn't an emergency immediately after the Dontay Carter incident, how is an evaluation of security at, say, the Port Administration an emergency now?

What Mr. Lighthizer has done is nothing new. Appointed and elected officials have rewarded trusted supporters since Andrew Jackson took his spoils system to Washington. Still, the secretary's rather obvious patronage does not sit well, especially at a time when the public is disillusioned with the character of public officials.

The secretary and his supporters take offense at questions about his imperial style, dismissing them as baseless attempts to discredit him. Predictably, they say the Republicans made an issue of the Zylwitis contract just to make him look bad.

They probably did. From here on, Mr. Lighthizer should take care not to make it so easy for them.

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