Ruppersberger stays in step with the business community But his bullishness has drawn opposition

September 17, 1996|By Ronnie Greene | Ronnie Greene,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

It was the eve of the 1994 Baltimore County election, and 150 people gathered over breakfast, hungry for change.

They were developers, lawyers and business leaders, and they paid $250 each for a fund-raiser at Timonium Fairgrounds to help whisk a new county executive into office.

Their choice: C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, the prosecutor-turned-politician who might quicken the county's economic pulse.

"The sense was that there was just malaise. The county was sick, or had a virus," recalls Edwin F. Hale Sr., a millionaire trucking company executive, banker and Ruppersberger neighbor. "Dutch is more upbeat."

Two years later, with his high-energy brand of politics a staple of county government, Ruppersberger remains in step with the business community that helped put him in office.

By actions big and small, the Democratic county executive has compiled a record of supporting business interests. Though he's widely popular, such bullishness has sparked some opposition.

In February, preservationists howled when the 1767 Samuel Owings House was bulldozed to make way for a $20 million office tower to be built by a Ruppersberger campaign fund-raiser.

Last month, the League of Women Voters urged Ruppersberger to change course and grant a county board that investigates bias in the corporate workplace the authority to fine offenders.

And in the coming weeks, Ruppersberger will face a tough test on development and school crowding -- and whether a law should be passed to balance the two.

Ruppersberger is not shy about his zest, putting economic development at the top of his political agenda -- along with public safety, education and the restoration of older neighborhoods.

"The business community asked me to run," he acknowledges. "I'm trying to bring back a good business climate so we can generate jobs and revenues. A lot of it is attitude at the top."

And at the top, he often mingles with business bigwigs.

In July, for example, he was whisked by private jet to the Maine vacation home of Charlie Cawley, chairman and chief executive of the $30 billion MBNA America Bank credit card company. While there, he met Persian Gulf war hero H. Norman Schwarzkopf at an MBNA conference.

At least 35 MBNA executives contributed to Ruppersberger's campaign. Total contributions tied to the Delaware-based company: at least $38,350.

Among them: MBNA Corp., the parent of MBNA America Bank, and Cawley, each giving $4,000. Also, the chief marketing officer, chief administrative officer, chief operating officer and chief financial officer.

The county executive and company chief say the donations stem from a relationship that predates Ruppersberger's political life.

MBNA once was part of a Baltimore-based bank, and Ruppersberger -- then a private attorney -- handled some of its legal work. Over the years, he says, he attended weddings of MBNA executives and MBNA Christmas parties.

Higher aspirations

"I'm like family with that group," Ruppersberger says. "I'm sure Charlie Cawley would love to have me run for governor."

Cawley has higher aspirations: "We'd like him to run for %o president of the United States. We think he is one of the finest public servants we have ever met in our lives."

After Ruppersberger took office as county executive, he ordered an MBNA credit card for county business. Since July 1, 1995, the county has paid $6,937 in bills on the card, the county says.

Ruppersberger says the credit card is the sole business connection MBNA has with the county. "I have a right for my relationships with my friends that have nothing to do with county government."

In July, Ruppersberger and his wife flew to Cawley's vacation home in Camden, Maine, on a jet owned by MBNA.

Angry because a reporter questioned the propriety of the free flight, Ruppersberger says he made the same journey last year. "And I'm going to go next year."

Cawley says he personally paid for the flight. "He didn't fly here as the county executive. He flew here as my friend."

Both men say the friendship has worked to the county's advantage -- pointing to 600 MBNA telemarketing jobs in Towson that might have been moved out of state otherwise. "The only reason they've got those jobs here is because of me," Ruppersberger says.

Adds Cawley: "If there's a conflict in that, the county ought to love it."

County ethics laws forbid elected officials from accepting gifts from anyone they know is doing business with the county.

Ethics specialists appear to agree with Ruppersberger that the trip did not violate county laws because it was personal.

"I don't see any problem there," says Fred Guy, director of the University of Baltimore's Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics. "Conflicts of interest have to be either pretty obvious or clear-cut."

Says Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland, a public-interest watchdog: "You don't want to prohibit officials from having friends."

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