Project funding under scrutiny Office building being developed by lawmakers' aide

Panel gets complaint

Baltimore center has received state subsidies

March 05, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden is seeking a fourth state subsidy for a controversial multimillion-dollar project in East Baltimore that is headed by his campaign treasurer and a leader of his political club.

The East Baltimore Democrat has another $300,000 bond bill before the legislature for an office building that Marie Washington, a political power broker in his district, is developing largely at taxpayers' expense.

Called the Fair Chance Center, the nearly finished $3.2 million building east of downtown will house state offices and a jobs program. It has been financed with about $2.65 million in government assistance, including $950,000 in state grants that McFadden pushed through over the past three years.

Del. Hattie N. Harrison, a Democrat from McFadden's 45th district whose campaigns Washington also has run, has promoted the House versions of the aid bills -- and helped Washington win a federal grant for the job program.

Now, both lawmakers' roles in boosting the project have prompted critics to call for a review by the General Assembly's ethics committee.

A complaint by two community activists has been referred to the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics. Committee leaders said yesterday the matter would be reviewed now that the panel has concluded investigations of former Sen. Larry Young, who was expelled in January, and former Del. Gerald J. Curran, who resigned last week.

"It seems to me a conflict of interest," said critic Ornat W. Erby, noting that Washington was chief strategist for McFadden's 1994 ticket with Harrison and two other 45th District delegates.

"We think there might be some problems with these people sitting on various boards and belonging to the same political organization that's tied up with this Fair Chance building," added Erby, president of the Biddle, Broadway, North Avenue and Chester Support Council.

McFadden and Harrison said they would welcome an ethics review. Both said they have always drawn a clear distinction between Washington's political work and her development of the Fair Chance Center.

McFadden has served on Fair Chance's advisory council and disclosed on his ethics report that he is a nonvoting board member of the East Baltimore Community Corp. (EBCC).

Political club

The nonprofit community development corporation is an offshoot the Eastside Democratic Organization, former Mayor Clarence Du Burns' still-influential political club. Washington, a Burns protege, is the corporation's paid director.

Harrison chairs the governing board of Historic East Baltimore Action Coalition, which is in charge of a state and federally funded revival of poor neighborhoods around Johns Hopkins Hospital.

She co-chaired the grant application process in which EBCC won $514,000 last summer for the jobs program. Washington also sits on the renewal board.

In a Dec. 9 letter to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Erby and Doris Minor-Terrell, president of Rutland-Lafayette Community Association, noted concerns about lawmakers "in a position to control every city, state and federal dollar for this sector. The strangest part of all is that it appears there is no accountability for their actions."

They attached an April 1997 article in The Sun detailing the political connections. Miller said last week he referred the complaint to the ethics panel earlier in the legislative session.

In interviews, Erby and Minor-Terrell said they were most troubled by the role of McFadden and Harrison -- and to a lesser extent Dels. Clarence Davis and Talmadge Branch. The delegates, Democrats from the same district, also have ties to the Eastside Democratic Organization and have co-sponsored bond bills. But they don't serve on the boards and have been less active in pushing the project.

'No conflict'

A member of the House of Delegates since 1973, Harrison said: "There's absolutely no conflict." Harrison, who works for the mayor in a neighborhood outreach office, said she had "everything checked out legally" before joining the renewal coalition.

"One is business and one is politics," agreed McFadden, a high school administrator who was elected to the Senate in 1994. "As long as you clearly delineate the differences between the two, I don't see any problem."

Both emphasized their board activities are strictly volunteer. They credited Washington with stabilizing a half-vacant stretch of the 300 block of N. Gay St. and creating a job counseling, tutoring and referral service for the chronically unemployed.

While no allegations have been made that the legislators have benefited financially, the complaint that they have favored their political strategist comes at a time of heightened sensitivity to ethical questions in the General Assembly.

A distinction

Kathleen S. Skullney, director of Common Cause/Maryland, a government watchdog group, said the distinction that a lawmaker is not profiting personally "does not change the essential nature of the disquieting deals being made."

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