Land sale benefits regulator, bar owner

August 03, 1994|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Sun Staff Writer

The Anne Arundel County liquor board chairman became the business partner of a Hanover bar owner in a speculative land venture that netted the two men $605,000 in 1992.

Thomas E. Riggin, chairman of the county liquor board, and Michael Stavlas, owner of Timbuktu, jointly purchased 7.4 acres on Dorsey Road for $150,000 in late 1986 -- one year after Mr. Stavlas acquired the restaurant and its liquor license.

The previous owner offered the property to Mr. Stavlas, whose restaurant is next door. Mr. Stavlas, financially strapped by the recent purchase of the Timbuktu, then approached the liquor board chairman, a longtime acquaintance who dined frequently at the restaurant.

"I said, 'Seven acres in Anne Arundel County for $150,000? Get out the papers, where do I sign?' " Mr. Riggin recalled. "I don't see any conflict with my buying a piece of property with a businessman, even if he owns a liquor license."

Five years later, the partnership sold the property to the State Highway Administration for $755,000 as part of the east-west extension of Route 100 from Interstate 95 to Interstate 97. The pair split the proceeds.

The land deal, which has surfaced as a campaign issue in this year's District 32 Senate race, has raised several questions. Did the partnership create a conflict of interest under Anne Arundel County's public ethics law? Did it get preferential treatment for Mr. Stavlas from the liquor board? And did Mr. Riggin and Mr. Stavlas benefit from political connections during the sale to the State Highway Administration?

Mr. Riggin said there was no conflict in his partnership with Mr. Stavlas, pointing out that he has never had to rule on any issue involving Timbuktu.

Sen. Michael J. Wagner, the Democratic incumbent in District 32, for whom Mr. Riggin is a fund-raiser and campaign adviser, said he knew nothing of the land deal until after it occurred.

James J. Jones, executive director of the Anne Arundel County Ethics Commission, said the county code does not explicitly prohibit partnerships between regulators and license holders. But, depending on the circumstances of the relationship, the ethics panel still could rule that a conflict of interest exists.

"You have to apply the 'reasonable man' rule," said Mr. Jones, who would not comment specifically on the land deal. "Would it pose a conflict of interest to the reasonable man?"

"Certainly, there is the appearance of a conflict when a regulator has a business relationship with a license holder," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland, a nonprofit, public ethics watchdog. Whether one existed depends whether Mr. Riggin disclosed the partnership to the public before making decisions affecting the license, she said.

Mr. Riggin appears to have complied with Anne Arundel County ethics laws by disclosing the purchase in annual filings in Annapolis. The property at 1734 Dorsey Road is listed on his disclosure statements from 1986 through 1990, the year the highway administration went to court to force the sale. The sale was not completed until July 1, 1992.

Republican state Senate candidate C. Edward Middlebrooks said he believes that Mr. Riggin benefited from his connections with Mr. Wagner.

"It could be coincidence, but I think we ought to let the voters decide if [the SHA sale] was something other than luck," said Mr. Middlebrooks, chairman of the Anne Arundel County Council. "These are not cases where people own property for a long VTC period of time. These are guys who got into the deal, got out quick and made a fast buck."

Mr. Wagner said he was unaware of the land deal until after the sale. When he learned of it, he "was a little aggravated that [they] sold it to the state because I knew [these questions] would probably come up," he said. "No matter what I say, no one is going to believe me."

Mr. Wagner was scrutinized by the state's special prosecutor in the 1980s after Kenneth Pippin, a Ferndale businessman linked to Mr. Wagner's 1986 re-election campaign, sold the Baltimore-Annapolis Railroad right of way to the state for the Central Light Rail line. Mr. Pippin, who paid less than $1 million for the land in the early 1980s, sold it for $9 million. Nothing came of the probe.

Highway administration officials said the public was made aware of the Route 100 alignment through public hearings in April and June 1986. Although the final alignment was not chosen until later that year, most of the alternatives went through the property, said Steve Foster, a state highway planner involved with the project.

Although records show that Mr. Wagner was among numerous elected officials who attended those public meetings, Mr. Riggin said he was unaware of the highway agency's plans when he and Mr. Stavlas bought the land in December 1986.

Mr. Riggin said he no longer has any business relationship with Mr. Stavlas or any other license holders.

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