Gray's money troubles: Not rare, but not smart

COMMENT

July 14, 1996|By Norris West

IT DOESN'T BOTHER me that C. Vernon Gray is trying -- unsuccessfully, it seems -- to raise a lot of money for his bid to become president of the National Association of Counties, a non-profit organization that is familiar to few people outside government.

Sure, the Howard County councilman has done a poor job of telling us who contributed to his campaign. That's brought him scrutiny over whether he may have treated at least one donor favorably when voting on legislation concerning that benefactor. Elected officials aiming to win the public's trust can't go wrong with full disclosure of financial contributions.

And Mr. Gray, a political veteran, knows this. He should have gone the extra mile, even airing a list of his backers on Cable 15 if that's what it took.

He enlisted the help of executives from NationsBank and the Ryland Group as he sought to raise $35,000 to pay his expenses of traveling around the country to seek support from members of the national association. A letter signed by the two executives implied that contributions to Mr. Gray's NACO campaign were "not subject to reporting requirements since this is a non-political campaign."

Wink, wink

In other words, wink, wink.

Indeed, Mr. Gray apparently has not violated any rules; he just stretched their limits. To his credit, he didn't pass the collection plate until the county solicitor's office and the Maryland Attorney General's office advised him on how to proceed in this nebulous area. Getting advice from legal experts was the correct first move.

4 Not reporting the gifts was the wrong next move.

Particularly troubling in this is the revelation that neither state nor county laws explicitly cover the ways contributions for non-public office should be reported. It is a loophole that should be closed immediately.

The fund-raising itself is not unusual for NACO candidates. Contenders from other states have spent more than $50,000 to meet and greet voters at meetings of the national organization's state affiliates and regional conferences.

Mr. Gray is running against Richard Cecil, a New Castle County, Del., councilman, for second vice president. The victor would ascend, in coming years, to first vice president, president-elect and president. Mr. Cecil said he expects to spend $5,000 to $6,000, roughly the amount Mr. Gray said he has raised.

He described Delaware's reporting requirements as far less stringent than those in Maryland. While Mr. Gray must disclose all money he receives for his campaign in annual statements to county and state ethics commissions, Mr. Cecil said he is not required to report his contributions at all.

NACO President Doug Bovin said he raised about $25,000 from various sources when he ran three years ago. The Delta County, Mich., official said he sought votes by hosting costly receptions at association conferences.

"Some people have actively gone for corporate sponsors. Others have held fund-raisers," Mr. Bovin said.

These NACO campaigns have been expensive in recent years, leading some to wonder if the organization should set spending limits for candidates. It may seem like a lot of fuss and money for leadership in an organization that is obscure to most people. But the stakes are high.

The National Association of County Officials is a Washington-based organization of more than 2,000 elected and appointed county leaders from all 50 states. It lobbies nationally on issues important to local governments.

A victory by Mr. Gray would bring a degree of attention to Howard County and put him on the White House's Rolodex.

Mr. Bovin said he has met with President Clinton four times since becoming the group's leader last year, and that he's also had meetings with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, when he was the Senate's majority leader.

Certainly, Mr. Gray would welcome the prospect of Gray-Clinton (or even Gray-Dole) summits. This would give him a higher profile in a small county like Howard, which craves fame to go along with its wealth.

'I've got friends'

If he wins the NACO election Tuesday, he surely would use the position to his advantage in his probable campaign for county executive in 1998. An ally of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Mr. Gray might even take a page from Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's book last year and campaign on the theme: "Elect me. I've got friends in Annapolis and Washington."

County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who is prohibited from

running for a third term, says he supports Mr. Gray's NACO campaign and has offered the limited use of county resources for the effort. This in spite of the fact that the two men belong to opposing political parties. But a victory by the 2nd District councilman would be unwelcome news to other Republicans intent on running for county executive in two years.

If Mr. Gray wins the support of colleagues from across the country, his next job would be to clean up the political mess this controversy has caused for him at home.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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