Gray loses bid for NACo lobbying post Campaign for job raises questions for ethics panel

'I'm sorry he didn't win'

50 firms solicited for $1,000 each to aid the effort

July 17, 1996|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray lost his bid for a leadership job with a powerful national lobbying group yesterday, leaving behind only ethical questions about a campaign that proved unsuccessful.

By a margin of about 1 percent, Gray lost the election for second vice president -- and eventually president -- of the National Association of Counties (NACo), which finished a five-day convention in Houston with yesterday's vote.

To pay for his campaign, Gray sought $1,000 donations from 50 companies -- including Comcast Cablevision, which the County Council regulates. The fund-raising effort drew the attention of the county's Ethics Commission, which began scrutinizing it Monday night.

The commission reached no decision, but plans to continue its study at a meeting Aug. 20. "We're still trying to refine and review the issues," said Chairman Russell Gledhill. "No conclusions were reached."

NACo is mostly a lobbying group representing the nation's 3,000 counties. The winner of yesterday's election immediately becomes part of the leadership and becomes president in 1999.

Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, lost by a vote of 2,069 to 2,019 to Richard Cecil, a Republican from New Castle County, Del.

Gray did not return phone messages left at his hotel in Houston yesterday.

"I'm sorry he didn't win," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a Republican who supported Gray's use of some county staff, envelopes and postage for his campaign. "I was hoping he would win because I thought it would really be a feather in Howard County's hat."

Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung of west Columbia, Gray's lone Democratic colleague on the council, said, "I'm real disappointed.

"It would have been a huge boon to Howard County," she said. "And Vernon has paid his dues in working for the organization."

PTC Gray, past president of the Maryland Association of Counties, has been a board member of the national association for 10 years.

In his campaign to become second vice president, Gray spent thousands of dollars of his own money flying to conventions of county officials in California, New York, Georgia, Florida, Minnesota and West Virginia. He also had driven to conventions in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

To cover those expenses, he asked 50 companies around the country -- including Comcast -- for $1,000 checks. He assured them all that the donations need not be reported under state election laws, which cover only campaigns for public office.

However, county ethics law prohibits officials from soliciting money unless it is for a state-regulated campaign for public office.

William Weston, an ethics professor at University of Baltimore Law School, called Gray's fund-raising "Chicago-style politics."

"The shakedown process, if it's true, is extraordinarily troubling," Weston said.

Gray has said he simply was raising money for a political campaign. He said letters from the Maryland attorney general's office and the county's law office convinced him the fund raising was legal and did not require disclosure.

But three issues remain regarding the fund raising:

Was seeking the donations a solicitation of gifts by a public official and therefore illegal?

Should donations for a private office such as NACo be allowed but regulated, as are regular campaign contributions? State law restricts the size and source and requires disclosure of campaign contributions.

Was it appropriate for Gray to use county staff, envelopes and more than $500 of postage to mail fund-raising letters and 1,600 campaign brochures?

Lonnie Robbins, the county lawyer who advises the Ethics Commission, said members are considering all three issues.

If the Ethics Commission rules that Gray solicited gifts, it could issue a range of penalties up to and including forcing him to forfeit his office.

Pub Date: 7/17/96

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