Councilman Gray plans a 2nd NACo run He narrowly lost election last year

March 12, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray plans to make a second run for vice president of the National Association of Counties -- a job he narrowly lost last summer amid ethical questions about his fund raising for that campaign.

The lobbying group, representing the nation's 3,100 counties, will hold its five-day annual convention at the Baltimore Convention Center in July, giving Gray the chance to complete a comeback 20 miles from his Columbia home.

Gray, a Democrat, has rarely discussed publicly last summer's election -- which he lost at the National Association of Counties (NACo) convention in Houston.

But in occasional remarks, he has complained bitterly that his loss resulted in part from The Sun's coverage of the ethical issues related to his fund raising.

"I don't want to talk about it," he said yesterday when asked about making a second bid for the post. "Just say I'm running."

He also promised to disclose the amount and source of all contributions to his campaign -- one of the issues that was raised last summer.

L "Anything I do, anything I raise, I will report," Gray said.

In his campaign last summer, Gray raised $14,300 from 11 donors.

Comcast Cablevision -- which the County Council regulates directly -- gave $3,000. At least $1,000 of that came shortly before a council vote on a cable rate change. Other donations came from NationsBank, First National Bank of Maryland and the Ryland Group, a home builder based in Columbia.

The ethical issues arose from the Comcast donation and the unusual nature of the job he was seeking. The position of vice president of NACo would be related to Gray's public duties, but it is not a public office.

Candidates for the job routinely spend thousands of dollars, mostly for travel and lodging. But raising money to pay for the campaign falls into a murky area between contributions to campaigns for public offices, which are regulated, and gifts to public officials, which cannot be solicited.

After seeking advice from the Maryland Attorney General's Office and Howard's Office of Law, Gray said he concluded that raising money for his NACo run fit into neither category, meaning they were neither regulated nor prohibited.

In letters to 50 prospective donors, he assured each that their names need not be reported the way all contributions to his County Council campaigns -- or any public office -- must be.

After The Sun reported on the unusual fund raising, Del. Shane Pendergrass, a fellow Democrat from east Columbia, introduced bill in the General Assembly to require public disclosure of such contributions, but it failed in committee.

Howard's Ethics Commission investigated Gray's fund raising for several months, concluding in October that Gray may have given the appearance of a conflict of interest when he voted on the cable matter shortly after taking money from Comcast.

It also recommended that he reveal the source and amounts of all of his contributions, which Gray did in December.

Otherwise, the Ethics Commission largely excused Gray, but his NACo bid had already failed -- in part because of the ethical questions.

At the NACo national convention in Houston last July, copies of the newspaper articles circulated, as did rumors -- completely untrue -- that Gray might be indicted when he returned to Maryland.

Gray's opponent, a Republican county official from Delaware, won by 50 votes.

Gray is now running for that position against two others, Gerry Hyland of Fairfax County, Va., and Timothy Lowenstein of Buffalo County, Neb.

Top NACo officials lobby Congress, Cabinet officials and even the president -- building contacts that can fuel political careers for years to come.

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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