Auditor's review sought of controversial project Grants, bonds, lease to be examined

March 06, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

State Del. D. Bruce Poole is seeking a review by Maryland's legislative auditor of a project in East Baltimore that is headed by the campaign treasurer for two lawmakers who have supported it with hundreds of thousands of dollars in subsidies.

As co-chair of the legislature's audit committee, Poole said yesterday he will ask the auditor to examine the grants, bonds and 10-year state lease that political strategist Marie Washington has won for a building she is developing largely at taxpayers' expense.

"We don't know enough of the facts, but I think it does deserve an inquiry," said Poole, adding he wants the auditor to determine whether a more in-depth investigation is warranted.

The legislative audit committee also will take up the matter, the Washington County Democrat said, in the wake of an article in The Sun detailing the political connections and large amounts of government assistance to the project.

The controversial project has sparked a complaint about Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden and Del. Hattie N. Harrison to the legislature's ethics committee.

Critics have asked the ethics panel to look at the roles that the two East Baltimore Democrats played in promoting Washington's office and job center. Washington is a leader of their political club, and she orchestrated McFadden's 1994 campaign with Harrison and two other Democratic delegates from the same district.

Called the Fair Chance Center, Washington's nearly finished $3.2 million building east of downtown was financed with some $2.65 million in city and state subsidies.

McFadden and Harrison have steered state grants totaling $950,000 to the project since 1995 -- and are seeking another $300,000 in this legislative session. Harrison also helped Washington win a federal grant for a job program run out of the center.

Other assistance includes a $400,000 low-interest state loan and $1.1 million in city bonds.

Besides the job program, the chief tenant at Fair Chance will soon be the state, which will pay $280,000 a year for the next decade for an office for social workers. The state now pays significantly less for more cramped quarters; at $14.97 a square foot, the rent at Fair Chance is toward the middle to upper range for comparable office space.

McFadden and Harrison said they have always drawn a distinction between Washington's political work and her development project. Both said they would welcome an ethics review.

Yesterday, several of their colleagues supported them, saying lawmakers routinely propose bond bills for neighborhood redevelopment projects.

"I'm terribly worried where all this is leading," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee that reviews bond bills. "As citizens, we have to be involved in the communities we represent."

Kathleen S. Skullney, director of the government watchdog group Common Cause/Maryland, applauded a financial review but said: "It does not take care of the question of how the deal was made in the first place."

Pub Date: 3/06/98

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