Young defense fund could spark new ethics accusations Personal involvement might violate gift law

January 12, 1998|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer C. Fraser Smith contributed to this article.

The group raising money to defend state Sen. Larry Young against ethical and possible criminal charges has itself entered a murky area where almost any involvement by Young -- even greeting guests at a fund-raiser -- could spark a new inquiry.

Legal defense funds for legislators are rare but permissible under state ethics law. But Young's involvement -- if any -- in raising money for his defense fund could violate the prohibition against public officials soliciting gifts.

That rule makes legal defense funds ethically treacherous, a problem that underscores how difficult it can be for public officials accused of wrongdoing to pay their legal bills -- Young's are expected to reach $65,000 -- without courting new troubles.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening took criticism three years ago for his legal defense fund as he battled an election challenge by his Republican rival, Ellen R. Sauerbrey. He eventually revealed $95,000 in contributions from Baltimore ambulance company owner Willie Runyon, his company and his daughter.

In the case of Young, a West Baltimore Democrat, even greeting guests at a fund-raiser for his legal defense fund might have violated the law, says Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., the presiding officer of the ethics committee.

At a benefit at the Baltimore Grand function hall on Jan. 3, Young shook hands and chatted with guests a few feet away from the reception table where they paid $50 for tickets.

"That would be an issue that would be the subject of an inquiry by the committee," said Montague, a Democrat representing north-central Baltimore. "It raises the question of whether he's soliciting gifts."

Young's lawyer, Gregg L. Bernstein, denied any wrongdoing.

"As long as the senator is not out there soliciting donations and he is listing any contributions on the [state disclosure] forms, as I understand the law, he's not committing any violation," Bernstein said.

The ethics committee and state prosecutor have been investigating Young as a result of a Sun investigation that found he used his legislative office to generate thousands of dollars in fees and donations for corporations he created, and failed to report those dealings to the ethics committee.

Similarly, he did not report to the ethics committee that he had a no-bid consulting contract with Coppin State College that paid him as much as $300 an hour, though he did report that to the state Ethics Commission. Young also has used his taxpayer-funded district office to run his private companies, The Sun reported.

The ethics committee has been investigating these issues for several weeks and plans to resume deliberations today. Young could lose his chairmanship and even his Senate seat if the committee finds ethical violations.

The state prosecutor is conducting a separate, criminal investigation of Young's business affairs.

Many of Young's supporters in Baltimore's political, business and church community have rallied to his defense.

A political team led by Del. Clarence M. Mitchell IV of West Baltimore and businessman Raymond V. Haysbert has defended Young on talk shows, held rallies and picketed The Sun.

The legal defense fund has been less organized, though Haysbert says Young will need $65,000 to pay his team of lawyers.

"If you can afford the right lawyers," said Haysbert, "your chances of justice are much better. So poor people are usually at a disadvantage."

Members of the President's Roundtable, an organization of black business executives, including Haysbert, plan to donate at least $5,000 to help Young pay his lawyers.

"For us, the business community, Larry Young has been an avid supporter of economic development," said Arnold Williams, the group's president.

The biggest event to date was the Benefit Variety Show on Jan. 3 at the Baltimore Grand, a West Lafayette Street function hall where Young greeted guests.

Even though money is clearly headed to the legal defense fund, the details of its operations -- even its leadership -- are unclear.

Mitchell, the spokesman for the political arm of Young's defense team, says the chairwoman of the legal defense fund is Lela Blue, who works at a West Baltimore bail bonds office; the treasurer is Ann Kim, an accountant for the Mass Transit Administration.

Blue did not return several messages last week.

Kim, who also is a member of the Governor's Advisory Committee on Asian-Pacific American Affairs, declined to comment other than to say that she intends to disclose all contributions to the defense fund. "Every penny, I will disclose," she said.

jTC Legal defense funds are rare enough that few legal precedents exist.

Public officials can solicit campaign contributions -- which have limits and disclosure rules under state law -- but soliciting any other type of gift is a violation of the state's Public Ethics Law.

Legal defense funds, such as the ones created by President Clinton and by Glendening, bring new wrinkles to such prohibitions.

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