Oaks aide raises funds at reception Guests asked to give at free event billed as tribute to delegate

'Not really a fund-raiser'

No illegality involved, but Rawlings calls event 'inappropriate'

November 29, 1997|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer C. Fraser Smith contributed to this article.

Dozens of business and community leaders were invited to a reception last month at the Baltimore offices of the private company that manages some Maryland small-business loan programs -- an event billed as a tribute to state Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks.

But after guests arrived, Oaks' campaign manager, Julius Henson, made a speech urging them to contribute to the West Baltimore Democrat's political campaign.

Henson then circulated around the room, collecting checks totaling more than $1,200 from eight people or groups, including association representing minority contractors, some of whom have sought the state loans managed by the company, some of those present said.

Stanley W. Tucker, president of MSBDFA Management Group Inc., said the reception was not intended to be a political fund-raiser, only a reception honoring Oaks for his efforts on behalf of minority businesses. However, his company contributed $250 to Oaks' campaign on the night of the event.

Tucker said Henson acted on his own, and Oaks' sometimes controversial campaign manager agrees. "I'm the bad guy. I asked them for money," Henson said. "If that's a mistake and I'm guilty, I'll think about not doing it again."

Oaks, 51, did not respond to repeated requests this week for an interview, including telephone calls over several days and a letter delivered to his home yesterday.

The delegate was aware of the requests and refused to comment, Henson said.

Henson, who has successfully managed the campaigns of Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and 7th District U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, said his solicitations reflected his style. "If I get three people in the room and I'm working for a candidate, I'm going to ask them for money," he said. "It was not really a fund-raiser but yes, I ask for money everywhere I go."

Under a state contract, Tucker's company recommends to the Maryland Small Business Development Financing Authority which minority and small business owners should receive certain state loans.

Tucker brushed aside questions about the propriety of Henson's soliciting campaign contributions from prospective loan recipients in the offices where they might apply for the loans.

"We're very objective in our decision-making," Tucker said. "If we felt it was compromising us in any way, it doesn't. We have checks and balances to make sure it doesn't compromise us."

Tucker acknowledged feeling "surprised" by Henson's requests for money, however. "I kind of cringed a little," he said. "Nat came with his people, and obviously he has his agenda and whatnot."

Henson's solicitation did not violate Maryland law, according to the attorney general's office. "A line has been drawn in the past between a testimonial to honor a public official's service on one hand and a political event on the other," said Jack Schwartz, the attorney general's chief counsel for opinions and advice.

"It can happen that someone who's not responsible for organizing, planning or conducting the event can stray across that line, but that doesn't change the fundamental nature of that event, if it was indeed intended and carried out as a testimonial," Schwartz said.

The handling of the event drew criticism from a leader in the General Assembly, who said he called Tucker and "suggested that he not do it again."

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who is chairman the House Appropriations Committee, said the reception Oct. 23 "showed poor judgment" and was "inappropriate" because it gave the appearance that a state agency was holding a fund-raiser for a member of the General Assembly.

"He may be grateful to Del. Oaks, but there are 140 other members of the House and 47 senators who are voting on issues that concern him," Rawlings said.

Several other state officials privately echoed Rawlings' concerns but would not comment publicly. One of them called the event "a bait and switch."

Tucker noted that members of MSBDFA management are no longer state employees and that his group is a private company under legislation approved by the General Assembly in 1994. But Rawlings pointed out that the company operates under a state contract to manage millions of dollars in state loans.

Tucker said he is assessing whether he will hold similar %o receptions in the future, given some of the reaction. "You live and learn," he said. "We don't need this kind of grief."

His company, MSBDFA Management Group, manages the Maryland Small Business Development Financing Authority under a $1.2 million annual state contract. The authority, a quasi-public agency that falls under the Maryland Department of Economic and Business Development, provides financial aid to small and minority businesses.

James T. Brady, state secretary of business and economic development, said he knew nothing about the reception for Oaks. In any case, he said, he does not consider it appropriate to comment on the private company, even though it contracts with his agency.

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