Questions raised about gifts to candidate Howard's Schrader defends practices

September 04, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

A Republican candidate for Howard County executive has accepted $23,000 in campaign contributions from at least 30 contractors he has done business with in his job as vice president at the University of Maryland Medical System.

County Councilman Dennis R. Schrader, who approves most construction and renovation contracts at the medical system, said yesterday that he saw nothing wrong with asking for donations from people who have received contracts. Top officials at the medical system, some of whom have given money to his campaign, also said the solicitations were appropriate.

But ethicists and a purchasing expert said accepting such contributions is at least a potential problem.

"You can already see the danger of a conflict of interest," said Andrea Giampetro-Meyer, a professor who teaches a graduate business ethics course at Loyola College's Sellinger School of Business and Management.

"This kind of thing is what gives both purchasing and politicians bad names," said Harold Fearon, founder of the Center for Advanced Purchasing Studies at Arizona State University. "It's just not ethical. . . . They know better than this, quite honestly. You really wonder if he weren't in the position he is, would these contractors, potential contractors, be willing to give contributions? The answer is probably not."

Schrader, vice president for facilities management and development, has overseen $300 million in construction and renovation projects at the medical system, which includes University of Maryland Hospital and other facilities.

Schrader said a number of contractors gave to him because they are personal friends or they live or work in Howard County, and some are themselves fund-raisers for him.

"I never gave it a thought, because I'm very careful about whom I ask for money," said Schrader, who provided a reporter with the names of contributors who did business with the medical system. "I don't ask for money from every contractor who works here. It's only from people that I have gotten to know, and other people that have given me money have been unsolicited."

Schrader also said he doesn't independently select the contractors. He said project managers and procurement experts generally review bids, then send recommendations up the chain of command for his signature. He also pointed out that a couple of other contractors who have submitted bids but never won a project have contributed to his campaign.

The candidate said he first realized his solicitations could become an issue when he heard about six months ago that supporters of his Republican opponent, County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, might approach reporters with the story. In their contentious primary battle, Schrader has raised far more money than his opponent -- nearly $173,000 compared to $113,500 -- drawing nearly half of his donations from the development community and others who profit directly from development, including the medical center contractors.

Medical system contractors reached this week offered varying explanations for supporting Schrader, though all who commented said their donations had nothing to do with Schrader's position at the medical system.

"In a way, I wish it did, but it doesn't," said Howard County architect George Vaeth Jr., a fund-raiser for Schrader who has given him $3,700 in cash and in-kind contributions. Vaeth has worked on numerous projects for the medical system in addition to his work elsewhere. "He's a very good manager and I think he has the highest integrity and that's really the reason I support him."

Reisterstown contractor Robert Ginsberg, one of the most generous Schrader supporters with donations totaling $2,990, declined to comment on why he gave. Schrader said Ginsberg recently worked on a $6 million Anne Arundel County project for the medical system, though he said Ginsberg also has a project in Howard County.

Jeffrey W. Zipprian, president of The Lyons Construction Co. in Hampstead, said he wasn't sure why he gave $200 to Schrader, whom he has met "a couple of times," but that he gives frequently to many organizations.

"My ma lives in Howard County, in Ellicott City there, so I don't know, I guess they caught me at a weak moment," Zipprian said.

Several minority contractors said they contributed because they believed Schrader would reach out to minority firms as county executive because of his strong record with minority firms at the medical system.

Upon hearing earlier this year that the issue might become public, Schrader told his bosses at the medical system, which requires officers to disclose any potential conflicts in writing.

John W. Ashworth III, a medical system senior vice president and director of the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, said this week the hospital should "tighten" its procurement policy to address employees who run for office. But he defended Schrader's actions.

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