Letter puts pressure on, lobbyists say Group seeks donations using name of top Glendening aide

'This is a shakedown'

Riddick says mailing should have been 'done in different way'

March 21, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Lobbyists for Maryland corporations have been receiving what some consider a high-pressure letter asking their companies to contribute up to $2,500 to a professional organization whose incoming president is Gov. Parris N. Glendening's chief of staff.

Several corporate lobbyists confirmed yesterday that they had received letters from the National Forum for Black Public Administrators that prominently mentions the role of the chief of staff, Major F. Riddick Jr., in the organization and tells recipients to call his State House office for information about a fund-raising banquet.

An authority on government ethics described the letter as a "nothing more than a shakedown."

Riddick, in an interview yesterday, denied any intent to put pressure on anyone but said, "It should have been done in a different way."

The letter was sent under the letterhead of the Washington-based organization, which lists Riddick as its first vice president. A copy of the letter was provided to The Sun by an official of one of the companies that received the solicitation.

All of the companies that received letters, including Bell Atlantic Corp. and Giant Food Inc., have had important bills, which the governor would have to decide whether to sign or veto, before the General Assembly this session.

The letter, sent this month, invites each company to buy tickets to a banquet Thursday in Greenbelt that is being held to establish an endowment for the organization, whose principal purpose is to encourage the participation of young blacks in public administration. The letter says Glendening and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke will speak at the event.

"One of the honorees is Major F. Riddick Jr., Governor Glendening's Chief of Staff," the letter says. "Mr. Riddick is expected to assume the presidency of the national organization in April."

The letter invites the company to become an "endowment sponsor" for $2,500 or a "corporate sponsor" for $1,000. It tells recipients that for more information, they can call Riddick's administrative assistant, Tecia Mathis, at the phone number listed as his in the Maryland Manual.

The incident does not appear to present any clear violations of law or any evidence that it involves an effort to enrich Riddick or add to Glendening's political funds.

Last night, Glendening issued a statement in which he stood behind his controversial aide.

'Absolute faith'

"Anyone who knows Major Riddick or who has worked with him knows of his integrity, his dedication and his belief in the highest principles of public service. I have absolute faith that Major has done nothing contrary to his principles," the governor said through a spokeswoman.

Nevertheless, ethics experts agreed that the letter raises troubling issues.

William I. Weston, a former University of Baltimore law school professor who specializes in public ethics, said the information number's 974 exchange is widely recognizable to Maryland lobbyists as a state government phone line. Its use in conjunction with the aide's name and prominent mention of Riddick send a clear signal to the recipient, he said.

"If it was not meant as one, then someone was very stupid. They're either very stupid or very crafty," said Weston, now associate dean of the Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville. "This is a shakedown."

Paul F. Rothstein, who teaches legal ethics at the Georgetown University Law Center, said it was a closer call than that.

"It's possible to be interpreted you will be on the governor's chief of staff's good side if you contribute and come," he said. "The fact it requires interpretation saves it from being illegal or unethical under the current system."

One of the lobbyists who received the letter, speaking on condition that he not be identified, said it could be perceived as pressure.

"It's difficult when you get letters like this," said the lobbyist, contending that such letters can give the recipient the impression that an official is waiting for a response.

"One has to tread very lightly," he said.

In yesterday's interview, Riddick said the letter was read to him ,, over the phone before it went out but that he didn't see a problem. He said he allowed the use of his assistant's name and office phone because "I didn't focus."

Riddick said that when the issue was brought to his attention, he consulted with John E. O'Donnell, executive director of the State Ethics Commission.

'A gray area'

"He said that it was in a gray area but that when you use a state number, you cloud the issue," said Riddick, who added that he immediately discontinued use of the number for that purpose and referred calls to the national organization.

"I will agree, focusing on this, that it would be better off not having Tecia's name or Tecia's number," he said. Riddick also said it would have been better if the text of the letter had mentioned all 18 honorees instead of just him.

Riddick said he was unsure whether his aide had handled any money in connection with the event and that he was unable to reach her last night.

Deborah C. Wilder, who is president of the organization's Maryland chapter and signed the letter on its behalf, said Mathis dispensed only information and distributed no tickets. "Miss Mathis never saw any of the money at all," she said.

Riddick's tenure as chief of staff has been controversial since early in the administration, when he was identified as an architect of a generous Prince George's County pension plan that would have benefited him and Glendening.

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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