Ticket gift may violate ethics laws State safety regulator was contractor guest at Camden Yards

Skybox seats accepted

Official defends visit to stadium as meeting on compliance issues

September 30, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The official in charge of enforcing workplace safety laws in Maryland accepted free tickets to a Towson contractor's luxury skybox at Camden Yards when he was negotiating a deal for more "cooperative" inspections at the company's stadium work site.

Such an action is an apparent violation of Maryland's ethics laws.

Craig D. Lowry, chief of compliance at the Maryland Occupational Health and Safety agency (MOSH) for 13 years, said he and his son were guests in the box owned by Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. when the Orioles played the Seattle Mariners on Aug. 22. The veteran regulator was seen at the game by an individual who recognized him and telephoned The Sun.

In an interview last week, Lowry defended his actions, saying he was meeting with Whiting-Turner officials to discuss a "cooperative compliance program" for the contractor at the site of the planned Ravens football stadium. Such programs, instituted by the Glendening administration last year, allow state inspectors to act as safety advisers in partnership with employers rather than as enforcement agents citing businesses for violations.

"The discussions were in the best interest of the state as well as the contractors who are working on the stadium," said Lowry, who said he did not consult state ethics officials before accepting the tickets. He said that the August game was the only occasion when he accepted a gift from Whiting-Turner.

The skyboxes are on the stadium's club level, where fans pay $25 a ticket to sit in seats where an attendant will serve beer or sandwiches. Most boxes are owned by corporations that use them for such purposes as entertaining potential customers or providing a perk for high-level executives.

John E. O'Donnell, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, would not comment directly on Lowry's actions. However, in response to hypothetical questions, he said nonelected state officials are forbidden to accept tickets to entertainment events from those they do business with.

"You can't give a free ticket to a bureaucrat," he said. "That's what it comes down to."

Lowry, when asked if he knew that accepting free tickets was prohibited for officials in his position, said he would have no comment.

The incident is the second in recent years involving a high-ranking state regulator and free tickets to a company's Camden Yards skybox. In a well-publicized 1992 case, then-Insurance Commissioner John A. Donaho was found to have accepted skybox tickets from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Maryland. Donaho, who was a staunch critic of Blue Cross despite the gift, later admitted publicly that accepting the tickets gave the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Eugene A. Conti Jr., Maryland secretary of labor, licensing and regulation, said through a spokeswoman that he is concerned about the matter and will ask the ethics commission to conduct a formal investigation.

Karen Napolitano, the department spokeswoman, said no disciplinary action can be taken until the ethics commission has acted because Lowry is a merit system employee rather than a political appointee.

But former MOSH employees say Lowry is not simply a mid-level bureaucrat. He supervises a staff of 80, most of them state inspectors. Napolitano said she did not know his salary but that employees in his pay grade receive $43,000 to $56,000 a year.

"He is the de facto linchpin of the whole MOSH program," said John Rekus, an industrial hygienist who said he worked for the agency for 18 years until he quit "in disgust" over changes at the agency in 1994. Rekus said the policy against accepting free tickets from regulated companies was well-known within the agency.

Whiting-Turner, the prime contractor on the Ravens stadium project, is a politically influential builder with close ties to the Schaefer and Glendening administrations. Willard Hackerman, who heads the company, is co-chair of a foundation that is raising funds to paint official portraits of Gov. Parris N. Glendening and his wife, Frances Hughes Glendening.

Hackerman declined to comment. Calls to Barry Klingenberger, the Whiting-Turner vice president identified by Lowry as the man who invited him, were not returned.

Lowry said Whiting-Turner was being considered for the Cooperative Compliance Program because it developed a strong safety program in recent years.

"What we try to do is get people who have superior health and safety records to get involved in more cooperative things," he said.

Lowry said the cooperative approach benefits the agency and the companies. Under the program, companies agree to voluntary inspections by state experts, who then advise the employers on remedies for violations.

He said the less adversarial approach makes better use of MOSH's resources and maintains high worker-safety standards.

"When you're dealing with large companies, they have a tendency to throw things to their legal staff and you end up litigating and litigating and litigating," he said.

Pub Date: 9/30/96

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