FREDERICK -- Maryland's 6th District congressional campaign heated up yesterday, as the Republican candidate charged his opponent with falsifying claims for reimbursement of legislative expenses as part of an "embezzlement scheme."
Roscoe Bartlett said he asked the state prosecutor to investigate what he called "fraudulent entries" in expense claims made by his Democratic opponent, Del. Tom Hattery.
Mr. Hattery, who called the charges "totally bogus and without foundation," said his opponent is using "dirty, desperate campaigning."
Republicans have seen this race as an opportunity to gain a seat in a district where they actually outnumber Democrats, a rarity in Maryland. But GOP officials have said Mr. Bartlett probably is trailing in a campaign that has lacked the punch and energy it needs. And they have have observed that Mr. Hattery went after Rep. Beverly B. Byron aggressively during the March primary, which he won after charging the incumbent with rampant junketeering.
State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli said yesterday that his office would investigate Mr. Bartlett's allegations. But he could not say how long the investigation would take.
At a news conference in front of the Frederick County Courthouse, Mr. Bartlett said his opponent "appeared to have falsified meal, hotel and travel expenses." He said Mr. Hattery "charged the taxpayers for meals he hadn't eaten and hotel rooms he hadn't occupied."
"All lies," Mr. Hattery said.
The GOP candidate read his charges and then left aides to answer reporters' questions. Mr. Bartlett said he expected his opponent's defense to be "everybody does it."
"That's not my defense; my defense is he's lying," Mr. Hattery said, adding his opponent had offered no evidence of embezzlement.
Even if the allegations are true, Mr. Montanarelli said, the word "embezzlement" did not seem appropriate to the allegations.
However, Bartlett spokesman Jim Lafferty defended use of the term: "If it isn't embezzlement, it will do until embezzlement comes along."
Mr. Bartlett's statement on the matter said that the alleged offense covered a 10-year period. But his aides said later that they assumed a decade of cheating based on their review of two or three years' records.
Mr. Bartlett alleged that his opponent collected reimbursement for mileage to Frederick at a time when he also was being reimbursed for hotel expenses in Annapolis.
But Mr. Hattery said hotels in Annapolis charge legislators for every day of the three-month session, even when lawmakers are not in the city. Thus, Mr. Hattery said, while it might appear from the records that he was collecting mileage and reimbursement for hotel bills on the same days, he was not.
Mary C. Atwell, legislative accounting office administrator, said that billing process is common.
Mr. Bartlett's aides also made much of Mr. Hattery's unvarying claims for meal expenses: $5 for breakfast, $10 for lunch and $15 for dinner. In copies of Mr. Hattery's expense sheets presented by Mr. Bartlett, almost every day's entries added up to the maximum as it rose from $28 a day in 1987 to the current $36.
When the state's maximum went up, Mr. Lafferty said, Mr. Hattery's claims went up with them. "Max goes up, Tom Eats More," said one of the campaign's charts.
"I did not always ask for the maximum reimbursement," Mr. Hattery said. "I've been very scrupulous about not claiming reimbursement if I was not there or if someone else paid for a meal."
The Bartlett campaign observed that the state's official expense form calls for a report of "Actual Expenses Incurred." Mr. Hattery could not have been reporting actual expense, they suggested, since the dollar amount of his claims seldom varied in the reports they presented.
Mr. Hattery said the figures were the same because he used averages of his daily meal costs. Actual costs were always greater than the state's allowance in high-cost Annapolis hotels and restaurants, he said. "Actual expenses" actually were greater than those he reported, he said.
Ms. Atwell said some legislators use the approach Mr. Hattery described: "As long as they don't exceed the maximum, it's valid."
Both House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, and House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington, said they understand Mr. Hattery's averaging approach to be commonly used. Mr. Mitchell said all sorts of approaches are used -- and he said some changes may be needed in the procedure.
Mr. Montanarelli said his investigation would deal only with the allegations against Mr. Hattery. The scope would be widened later if any of the allegations prove valid and if they appear to be widespread among senators and delegates.
Mr. Poole, who said he used the averaging approach himself, decried Mr. Bartlett's charges.
"They're saying, 'We'll throw this cow pie at the wall, see if any sticks, and in the meantime we'll go out and look for another cow pie.' "