Secretary of state moves into political visibility Office works actively for governor's agenda

October 05, 1997|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

The Maryland secretary of state's office -- a tiny agency that deals almost exclusively with the little-known functions of government -- has emerged as a quasi-political arm of the executive branch under Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

On paper, the office is charged with obscure duties that range from attesting to the governor's signature and keeping the Great Seal of Maryland to registering trademarks and policing charities.

But under Secretary of State John T. Willis, Glendening's close friend and chief political adviser, the office is used in an increasingly visible way to advance the governor's agenda and maintain links to political and community leaders around the state.

Willis, who is paid $70,000 a year, regularly crisscrosses the state, pitching Glendening, his policies and platform -- at events political and nonpolitical.

One night might find him pinch-hitting for Glendening as speaker at a Democratic Party dinner in Western Maryland; another could find him at a Rotary Club on the Eastern Shore. During working hours on a recent Tuesday afternoon, he attended a Charles County Democratic legislator's fund-raiser -- an annual golf outing and bull roast -- in Southern Maryland.

Such activity is not illegal -- Maryland law actually guarantees public employees the right to politic, provided it's not done on state time -- and it is in keeping with the time-honored traditions of some of Maryland's secretaries of state.

But activities in the office have moved beyond speaking engagements into a grayer area.

Some of Willis' employees have gone so far as to write letters on state time and stationery urging public support of Glendening's anti-gambling policies, and to help stage an event at which the governor was endorsed in his re-election bid by six Baltimore City senators.

One employee distributed news releases for the Maryland Democratic Party to the State House press corps during a workday last summer. Another candidly acknowledged that he accompanied Glendening to a Democratic Party political event in Cambridge on a Saturday evening last year and was later compensated with time off.

It is those actions that are beginning to prompt concern.


"It's absolutely inappropriate to use state employees to advance anyone's candidacy," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a government watchdog group. "Those types of activities only promote a sense of distrust between the public and public employees."

Willis concedes that he has pushed the office to new limits but defends the actions of his office, pointing out that it is, in fact, part of the executive branch under Maryland law and linked inextricably to the governor.

He maintains that his employees do not get paid for political work and that no one is actually working on Glendening's re-election campaign on state time.

"On political events, there is no Hatch Act in Maryland," said Willis, referring to the federal law that once prohibited any political activities by federal employees. "As long as you're not getting paid for that time, there is no prohibition.

"You are not supposed to be paid for doing purely political activity," he said.

Glendening defended Willis' role in the office, invoking the names of two former secretaries of state from Prince George's County -- Winfield M. Kelly Jr., the one-time executive, and Fred L. Wineland, a former state senator and delegate.

"They help carry the message of the administration," he said.

That, he suggested, differs from outright political activity.

As for the activities of Willis' employees, Glendening said, "He has a staff of young, enthusiastic workers and we use them to do the constituent work.

"Obviously we expect that every department head will carefully follow the rules of no partisan activity on official time," he said. "The law is clear: They're supposed to take time off."

But Maryland law is not so clear-cut in defining "political activity."

The line between governmental and political activity can be blurry, particularly for incumbent officeholders, who are sought out at events -- public, private and political -- by other officials and taxpayers alike to resolve nonpolitical problems within their purview.

"Everywhere I go, people have very legitimate concerns and problems," Glendening said. "What am I supposed to do, say, 'Sorry, I'm off duty'?"

The governor, instead, turns to an aide -- either from his staff or the secretary of state's office -- to take down the problem and see that it is addressed, he said.

'No clear line'

"There is no clear dividing line," said Jack Schwartz, the Maryland attorney general's chief counsel for opinions and advice.

"It is clear that governmental business sometimes has political consequences," Schwartz said. "It can't be otherwise in a system where people are elected to office.

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