Fund raising in Balto. Co. raises doubts Ruppersberger aided by developer who had dealings with him

Executive sees no conflict

2 reached agreement on office tower, moving Owings House

February 22, 1996|By Larry Carson and Jay Apperson | Larry Carson and Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

An Owings Mills developer who worked with Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III on a recent deal to dismantle a historic house to make way for a $20 million office tower is raising money for the executive's re-election campaign.

Howard S. Brown, who wants to move the 1767 Samuel Owings House, one of the county's oldest, serves on the county executive's campaign finance committee and has been selling thousands of dollars worth of tickets to a fund-raiser. He also has sold such tickets previously, Mr. Ruppersberger's campaign finance chairman said yesterday.

In January, Mr. Brown was sent 30 $100 tickets, and last week he asked for five $500 tickets to the March 12 event at Martin's West, said Hanan "Bean" Sibel, the campaign finance chairman.

"He's been a supporter of this administration all the way through," Mr. Sibel said.

Mr. Ruppersberger and his supporters deny even the appearance of a conflict of interest. They say the executive simply was asked to shake hands to seal a deal to preserve the house and get the economic development benefit from the nine-story office building.

Mr. Ruppersberger disavowed any knowledge of the developer's ticket-selling. "I had no conversations with him about my fund-raisers whatsoever," he said. "That had nothing to do with the issue."

The agreement on the Owings House stemmed from a dispute between Mr. Brown, who wants to develop his land, and preservationists, who are concerned for the fate of the house.

The two-story brick, Georgian country home -- for which Owings Mills is named -- has been used in recent years as a restaurant. It sits on a bluff overlooking Painters Mill and Dolfield roads and is surrounded by modern commercial buildings.

Last summer, the county's Landmarks Preservation Commission placed the house on a preliminary list of protected properties, but Mr. Ruppersberger chose not to submit the recommendation for County Council approval.

Under the recent agreement -- brokered by 3rd District County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire -- Mr. Brown would dismantle the house and move it to a 50-acre tract in Caves Valley. That would allow him to proceed with building the office tower at the site.

Vicki L. Almond said she and other preservationists fear that the house might not withstand dismantling.

Mr. Brown "has the influence. He has the money. I just think that says a lot," said Ms. Almond, a member of the Committee to Save the Samuel Owings House.

Joseph S. Matricciani, director of the county ethics commission, said the situation does not violate the county ethics law, which forbids an official from accepting gifts from "any person he knows or has reason to know" is doing business with the county.

But political campaign donations are not considered gifts under the law.

Mr. Brown did not return calls. His attorney, Julius W. Lichter, said the developer "has a policy" of not talking to reporters and added that the Owings House agreement is a "very positive thing."

Michael H. Davis, Mr. Ruppersberger's spokesman, said the executive has never personally raised funds for his campaigns and is kept uninformed about that aspect of his career.

The executive handles so many issues that it is virtually impossible to exclude everyone with an interest in them from making political contributions, Mr. Davis said.

"Dutch had no input [in campaign matters]. We just went with people who worked with us last time," Mr. Sibel said.

Mr. Brown's company, David S. Brown Enterprises, bought $1,125 in tickets to Mr. McIntire's fund-raiser last spring, according to campaign finance reports.

Mr. McIntire, a Republican who represents Owings Mills, said he suggested the handshake with Mr. Ruppersberger to make sure that the developer knew he had a firm commitment.

"I'm not happy with it," the councilman said of the agreement, "but it's the best we could do under the circumstances."

He said zoning permits an office building, complete restoration of the Owings House is too expensive, and moving the house intact is too expensive and difficult.

Mr. McIntire said he would not accept campaign contributions from constituents applying for zoning changes that he will decide on. But he added that he sees nothing wrong with having accepted Mr. Brown's money.

"It doesn't bother me, because I know it doesn't affect my judgment," he said.

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