The Schmoke friends & family plan

January 19, 1995|By Frank A. DeFilippo

EVERY ONCE in a while Mayor Kurt Schmoke does something that seems absolutely brilliant. Then he turns around and does something undeniably stupid.

Nobody's perfect in this most perfect of all possible worlds. But the severe oscillations in Mr. Schmoke's official behavior illustrate what must be some very uncomfortable tugs and pulls of personal politics.

Two cases in point: When Mr. Schmoke appointed Mathias J. DeVito as chairman of the board to oversee the $100 million resuscitation of Baltimore's blight, the public as well as the press rose up in a chorus of civic love songs.

But it didn't take long to wilt the bloom. Within days of Mr. DeVito's appointment, the mayor passed out the political plum of legal counsel -- on a no-bid basis -- to the law firm of both his campaign manager and treasurer, Shapiro & Olander.

Nominally the job goes to William E. Carlson. But the gold-lettering name on the law firm door belongs to Ronald M. Shapiro, Mr. Schmoke's campaign treasurer. And the firm also houses Larry Gibson, Mr. Schmoke's campaign manager, whose job title is "of-counsel," kind of a catch-all legal factotum.

And he gave the job of running the daily operations of the empowerment grant to Claude Edward Hitchcock, of Tydings & Rosenberg, another lawyer and political associate of Mr. Gibson's who prospered on non-bid city legal work.

So what else, you may ask, is new. Excuse the subversive thought, but in case anyone hadn't noticed here's what's new.

Housing and Urban Development grants -- in this case empowerment zone grants -- are the federal equivalent of what's known as "walk around" money. And in the potluck politics of Washington, it's fair to say that Baltimore's lucky to have been one of six cities to make the short list.

But the $100 million in federal money for a make-over of five of Baltimore's most blemished neighborhoods comes at a time when a federal grand jury is investigating the awarding of $26 million in non-bid repair contracts -- some that went to friends, relatives and families of city officials.

Six people already have pleaded guilty to the exchange of money and favors and still more are expected to sing longer than the second act of "Aida."

More to the point, a HUD audit of the city's housing agency criticized the uncontrolled spending and demanded repayment of $750,000. Yet the very same HUD ignores its own auditors' findings -- or was more than likely overruled by a higher authority -- and ships in more boodle by the millions.

So along comes Mr. Schmoke, missing the object lesson completely, playing the political patsy by indirectly giving his campaign handlers legal control of $100 million.

It could be argued, though, that the firm of Shapiro & Olander deserves the award because of its experience in public-spirited work. The firm represents the Baltimore Development Corp., which is run by their former law associate, Honora Freeman.

And they did the incorporation work for the Baltimore Community Development Financing Corp. and represent most, if not all, of the applicants for loans from the quasi-public agency.

So the puzzlement is this: Can brilliance and stupidity co-exist and prosper to the benefit of we, the people.

Mr. DeVito, the retiring chief executive officer of the Rouse Co., is a boardroom honcho who's accustomed to the structured world of corporate America. And he just happens to be the past president of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

Matt DeVito's appointment marks the first time the Schmoke Administration has reached beyond its tight little circle of political pals to install an outsider to a high rank. Yet Mr. DeVito has been given a board of directors that includes some of the city's best and brightest as well as a sampling of its noisiest and most political.

To be sure, there are alliances within the board that could very well strengthen the board itself. Yet much of Mr. DeVito's -- and the board's -- success will ultimately be determined by the quality of the staff Mr. Hitchcock hires.

In truth, the weak links on the board are the bureaucrats representing the corresponding city agencies, some of whom are responsible for the continuing mess at the housing authority as well as the malfunctioning Baltimore Development Corp.

Mr. DeVito also led Baltimore's three-year effort to win an NFL expansion franchise, a thankless job if there ever was one, and he never walked away.

Mr. DeVito's not a quitter. But those who know him say he says he'll wave goodbye at the slightest hint of hanky-panky or political favoritism.

In short, Mr. DeVito's the man for the job as long as they'll let him do it.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes on Maryland politics from Owings Mills.

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