Conaway aims for comeback Ex-state legislator starts anew as clerk of city Circuit Court

November 08, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

He hasn't held public office for 16 years, which isn't to say that former Del. Frank M. Conaway Jr. hasn't tried.

Mayor, sheriff, City Council -- he's campaigned for them all but lost or bowed out. He has even toyed with a run for governor since he lost his seat in the state legislature in 1982 during a scandal over the alleged misuse of $200,000 in insurance premiums.

Now, he's back.

The West Baltimore Democrat -- once criticized for handing out smoke detectors, bread and butter and chickens during a re-election bid for his delegate seat -- was sworn in Wednesday as clerk of the Circuit Court for Baltimore.

"People have faith in redemption," he said. "I have been redeemed."

Conaway's victory in the September Democratic primary surprised court officials and political observers. He was not favored to win the nine-candidate race that was marked by aggressive campaigning. He took the seat with 22 percent of the vote.

"He's a lucky guy," said William A. Swisher, a former Baltimore state's attorney whose office started an 11-month investigation of Conaway. No criminal charges resulted. "It's a hell of a comeback from his history."

Conaway, 65, doesn't like to talk about the past. He wants to talk about the future. He promises to improve morale at the clerk's office, which has a $10.7 million budget. He pledges to improve operations at the courthouse, where liens are recorded by hand.

Concerns over fund-raiser

Before Conaway took office, concerns were raised about how his campaign handled a recent fund-raiser.

Officials of the union representing the clerk employees say a political ally of Conaway's called a union leader at the courthouse and delivered 50 $40 tickets to sell for an Oct. 29 "victory reception" that Conaway had set up to help repay about $6,000 in campaign debts. The union bought 20 tickets and gave them to employees, the officials said.

Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of the nonprofit government-watchdog group Common Cause/Maryland, said there appears to be no violation of the ethics laws, but the employees were placed in an untenable position.

"There's no way that a member of the union can freely choose not to sell these tickets on behalf of the person who will be their boss and not fear reprisals," Skullney said. "What you have, in essence, is an unspoken squeeze play."

Conaway said he does not know whether anyone gave tickets to union employees to sell. He did not order it, he said, and was not told that it happened. He suggested that a member of his staff might have done it.

"I can't be my brother's keeper," Conaway said. "I don't see anything wrong with the union buying tickets anyway. Unions buy tickets all the time. They support candidates all the time."

Extensive experience

Conaway's supporters see the clerk post as a new chance for him. Attorney and former Circuit Judge William H. Murphy Jr. attributed Conaway's past troubles to a lack of education common to young entrepreneurs of his time.

"This is his opportunity to provide an extremely high level of public service as opposed to his earlier career," Murphy said.

Conaway's political career started more than 25 years ago. A product of the Metro Democrats, the club led by William L. "Little Willie" Adams, a West Baltimore political leader and businessman, Conaway took office in the state legislature in 1971. He later became chairman of the House of Delegates Black Caucus.

An insurance broker, Conaway was criticized -- but later cleared of any ethical conflicts -- for sponsoring a pro-insurance bill without disclosing his interest.

In 1982, the Maryland Insurance Division filed 24 administrative charges against Conaway and three others in his insurance company alleging that they did not forward to insurance companies more than $200,000 collected from policyholders. Conaway's company had previously been fined for similar violations.

The insurance division suspended the charges after Conaway gave up his brokerage licenses and sold his two insurance companies.

An 11-month grand jury probe into that and a similar accusation ended in 1983 with no criminal charges. Conaway denied the charges at the time but said some of his employees had been engaged in "questionable" practices.

After losing his legislature seat in the 1982 election, Conaway filed for bankruptcy. He collected $3,500 in unemployment, which was ordered returned.

Return to politics

For the past several years, Conaway has been trying to return to political life. In 1983, he ran for mayor. In 1990, he ran for sheriff of Baltimore on a "cowboy platform" to expand the powers of the office, which delivers subpoenas and handles courthouse security.

He distributed pictures of himself dressed as a cowboy riding a rearing horse and called his campaign staff the "O.K. Corral." The head on the horseman appears to have been cut from another picture and superimposed. The original picture was a Roy Rogers publicity photograph.

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