Nary a thing conflicted with this senator's interest

Baltimore Glimpses

April 12, 1994|By GILBERT SANDLER

IF you've been following the Whitewater scandal, you know that a lot of highly placed public servants are being asked (or are going to be asked) if their role in the affair placed them in a conflict of interest.

For a refreshing defense of conflict of interest -- the words and the music -- all we have to do is take a look at the life and times (and explanations) of the late state Sen. Joseph E. Staszak, the one-time philosopher king of East Baltimore, circa 1970.

In those days Senator Staszak, along with his duties as a senator, ran a popular watering hole, Joe's Tavern, in Dundalk. (Politicians with taverns in the family are not unusual in Maryland. Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski is another bar owner.) Business seemed pretty good at Joe's, but there was a problem: Some of the big discount liquor stores were cutting into Joe's profits.

Through a process best known to insiders, it was Del. F. Vernon Boozer, a Republican serving the 4th District of Baltimore County, who sponsored what came to be known as the "liquor bill." The bill would have prohibited liquor dealers from selling booze for less than a markup of 12 percent over wholesale. The generally accepted effect of the measure would have been to force large cut-rate liquor stores to raise prices, putting the smaller dealer (such as Joe's) in a better competitive position.

It came as no surprise that the bill just happened to enjoy the full and enthusiastic support of Sen. Joseph E. Staszak -- the Joseph of Joe's Tavern. Package sales made up a third of Joe's business. Staszak began lobbying energetically for the bill. It was passed, but Gov. Marvin Mandel vetoed it.

But earlier, at a hearing on the measure, Staszak was asked if he felt his role as a legislator clashed with his role as a tavern owner in advocating the bill's passage. "There is no conflict with my interest," he said.

That might not be it, word-for-word. Staszak might have asked, "How does that conflict with my interest?" At least, that's one other version.

Staszak isn't around to tell us exactly. He drowned Aug. 30, 1979, while fishing in Old Road Bay in the Lodge Forest area of eastern Baltimore County.

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