Questionable deal had OK of executive Ruppersberger aide says staff handled land purchase details

Other officials took blame

His role came 10 months before legal doubts arose

September 05, 1996|By Ronnie Greene | Ronnie Greene,SUN STAFF

As details of a questionable $200,000 Baltimore County land deal came to light over the past week, two county officials were put on the hot seat and took the blame for pushing the transaction through.

But the county's own files reveal that a third, higher-ranking, official also played a key role: County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III.

Memos reveal Ruppersberger's involvement -- and approval of the project -- 10 months before its legality was called into question in late May by County Attorney Virginia W. Barnhart.

The memos also reveal that Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Democrat who represents the Lansdowne area, was briefed about the deal a month before the county attorney raised questions about it.

Moxley couldn't be reached for comment yesterday, but in earlier interviews, he and other council members criticized the deal-makers for sidestepping council oversight. They also said the episode pointed up the need for strict new guidelines such as those imposed this week by Ruppersberger.

"We definitely need to make sure we do have appropriate procedures in place that safeguard not only the county, but the communities that receive the grants," Moxley said.

Yesterday, Ruppersberger spokesman Michael H. Davis acknowledged that the executive supported the project's goal and approved a $200,000 grant to make it happen.

But Davis said details being called into question were handled by Ruppersberger's staff, not by the executive himself. The two county officials at the center of the controversy over the questionable grant are P. David Fields, director of the Community Conservation Program, and Merreen E. Kelly, the county administrative officer.

As county executive, Ruppersberger's job is to set policy and let others put it into effect, Davis said.

"Crossing the t's and dotting the i's, that's our job," Davis said. "It's a big county, and Dutch to a large extent is relying on us to do our job. He's really relying on us and our judgment."

'He takes responsibility'

Still, as the county's top elected official, Ruppersberger says, " 'Look, I'm ultimately responsible,' " Davis said, quoting the executive. "He takes responsibility."

In the questionable deal, the county Office of Community Conservation routed $200,000 to the nonprofit Southwest Leadership Team to buy land for a park in Lansdowne, southwest of the city. The nonprofit group plans to give the 3.4 acres back to the county as a "gift," with the park to complement an apartment complex for the elderly.

The transaction poses two problems. First, county appraisals placed the land's value at as low as $73,000, and the county's own Bureau of Land Acquisitions balked at the $200,000 asking price. Second, the purchase violated the county charter because it wasn't approved by the County Council.

County files contain no hint that Ruppersberger was aware of the lower appraisals, and he and his spokesman say he wasn't.

"Did he know $200,000 was to buy a piece of property? Yes," Davis said. "Did he know of the lower appraisals? No."

Still, there is ample proof that Ruppersberger was aware of the $200,000 grant, its purpose and the fact that the nonprofit group planned to deed ownership back to the county -- all before the county attorney called the deal into question.

For instance:

On July 27, 1995, Ruppersberger wrote to the Rev. Steven P. Girard, president of the nonprofit group that was to receive the grant.

The letter began: "Baltimore County is pleased to award the Southwest Leadership Team a grant of $200,000 to acquire a 3 1/2 acre site at Baltimore and Fifth Avenues. Baltimore County will develop this land into a community park for Lansdowne residents."

On April 15, 1996 -- three months after the nonprofit group bought the property from brothers Gerald W. and Dennis L. Harting for $200,000 -- Girard wrote to Ruppersberger. A copy of the letter was sent to Moxley.

"The Southwest Leadership Team Inc. wants to deed this property to Baltimore County to enhance open space in the neighborhood and develop a park which will be an asset to the community," the letter says. "Please have someone contact me regarding the steps necessary to deed the Harting property to the County."

On May 8, 1996, Ruppersberger wrote back to Girard, acknowledging the April letter and saying he had forwarded it to the county's Office of Community Conservation for review.

A few weeks later, with the proposed "gift" to the county scheduled to be discussed at a council meeting, the project landed on the desk of the county attorney.

Barnhart's review revealed the lower appraisals and the charter violation.

Barnhart relayed her findings to Ruppersberger.

"To his credit, his direction to me was: 'You're right. You need to XTC make disclosure on it. And you need to fix it,' " Barnhart said yesterday.

Other grants questioned

Barnhart found two other questionable grants -- nearly $400,000 handed by Community Conservation to private nonprofit groups to pay for contracting work. Barnhart said the county should order the work on its own, not hand the job to others.

Tuesday, Ruppersberger ordered new safeguards in handling public grants.

His executive order creates the job of grant administration coordinator, establishes a grant review committee and requires full disclosure of grants to the County Council.

The purpose of the order, he said, is "to be sure we have all the controls and checks and balances so this situation would not occur in the future."

Pub Date: 9/05/96

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