Figure in scandal gets state contract He wins $14,679 job despite sanctions in city housing probe

July 30, 1998|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A politically connected businessman who was involved in a Baltimore public housing scandal four years ago has landed a state contract to help prison inmates find jobs in private businesses after they are released.

Stuart O. Simms, secretary of Maryland's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said Westley B. Johnson's "ties to the local community" and business contacts made him a good choice for the one-year, $14,679 contract.

"We're trying to create a group of individuals outside of the agency who can serve as spokespersons for what we are trying to accomplish to create interest in this pool of individuals for purposes of screening and possible hiring," Simms said.

Simms described Johnson as a "catalyst" in the effort to reach private businesses. Johnson did not respond to calls from a Sun reporter this week for his comment on the contract, which he signed in March.

The contract makes Johnson director of private industry development. His duties include working with industry to "expand inmate work and training programs and to create job opportunities."

Johnson is well-known on Baltimore's political scene, with ties to Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and former state Sen. Larry Young, the West Baltimore Democrat expelled from the General Assembly this year for using his public office for private gain.

Johnson is proprietor of the Five Mile House restaurant on Reisterstown Road in Northwest Baltimore and is chairman of the organization that sponsors AFRAM, which is billed as one of the nation's largest African-American festivals.

Johnson also is no stranger to controversy. Four years ago, federal auditors cited a contracting firm Johnson then ran for inflating costs and billing for work never performed as part of a repair program run by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

Johnson's company had been awarded more than $1 million to repair 31 houses under the program. The federal government demanded a $50,000 refund from the company after auditors found problems with the work done and the amounts the firm billed.

An embarrassed Gov. Parris N. Glendening withdrew his nomination of Johnson to the Maryland Port Commission after The Sun detailed the housing authority's payments to Johnson and other contractors for faulty and phantom repairs under the program.

Johnson was not accused of criminal wrongdoing, but six people involved in the $25.6 million, no-bid housing renovation program were convicted of corruption charges after a two-year federal investigation.

Simms said the housing controversy did not come up in his discussions with Johnson about the state contract and indicated he thinks the issue is irrelevant in considering whether he should have given the job to Johnson.

"I never asked him for any housing work or to provide any services other than what I had described," Simms said. "I never addressed any civil issues outstanding that he may have had with any other parties."

Simms said many people around the state "may have been accused of something" or may have some taint to their name, but that should not preclude them from working in a properly supervised public position.

"The question is whether or not appropriate controls are in place to manage [the work] effectively, and I'm confident the controls are in place," Simms said. He also noted that Johnson has "no prior convictions."

Simms said Johnson contacted him in late 1996 or early last year, when Simms was heading the state's Department of Juvenile Justice. Johnson was interested in a program Simms was pursuing that would recruit businesses to employ youths about to be released.

"Before I could consummate that, I was appointed to this position," Simms said, adding that he continued to discuss the idea with Johnson after he was appointed in November to head the correctional services department.

Simms said Johnson reports to Beverly B. Carter, Simms' chief executive assistant.

Johnson has not billed for any work done under the contract, which was dated March 20, said Carter, who signed the contract for the state agency. Johnson is to be paid $14.11 an hour, to a maximum of $14,679.

Carter said Johnson's role heading the African American Community Foundation, which organizes the AFRAM expo, brings him into contact with major corporations that put up money to sponsor the ethnic festival.

"He is a pretty high-profile guy," Carter said. "We're interested in his contacts with corporate America. Our only interest in him is in regard to his contacts with private industry."

Pub Date: 7/30/98

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