Aide to Arundel executive fired for ties to racetrack developer

Top adviser Gilligan being paid to lobby for county speedway

January 16, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Newly elected Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens dismissed one of her top advisers yesterday after learning that developers proposing a 60,000-seat auto speedway are paying him to lobby for her support.

Owens, nicknamed "Snow White" during her fall campaign because she ran on a platform of clean and open government, said she was shocked to learn that Michael F. Gilligan is on the payroll of Chesapeake Motorsports Development Corp. and that he had failed to register as a lobbyist, as required by county law.

The Sun informed Owens' yesterday about Gilligan's relationship with the developers. "I called Michael and told him he must resign immediately," said Owens, a Democrat. "I've known Mike for years. He's always represented criminals. This really makes me sad. I'm disappointed."

Gilligan, a Glen Burnie attorney, was one of Owens' closest advisers in her upset victory over County Executive John G. Gary. Until yesterday, he had served as the volunteer co-chairman of Owens' transition team.

Gilligan said he had done nothing improper. The developers, he said, hired him because of his experience as the county council's attorney from 1974 to 1982, and as a councilman from 1982 to 1990.

"Janet and I and David [Owens' husband] have been friends for years and years," Gilligan said. "I'm not cashing in on the relationship. [The track development company] is just another client for me. I have a good reputation as an attorney."

Gilligan added, however, that he would immediately register as a lobbyist with the county ethics commission.

The Gilligan matter is the first ethical question to arise in the month-long administration of Owens, whose campaign supporters had criticized Gary, a Republican, for being too cozy with developers and supportive of the track.

Gilligan's dismissal is the most recent in a series of embarrassments for the track developers, who until recently were called the Middle River Racing Association.

"I really don't have any comment," said Joseph Mattioli III, chief operating officer of the racing group.

The group backed away from a proposed site near Essex in 1997 after Baltimore County officials criticized it for falsely claiming to have the support of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.

During the group's campaign for an alternate site near Russett in Anne Arundel County a year ago, the developers irritated some county officials by demanding special legislation to limit public hearings on the project, which was proposed in a residential area.

In its third bid for a site, the racing group is seeking approval to lease Maryland Port Authority land just south of the Key Bridge in Pasadena. Although the lease requires state approval, Gov. Parris N. Glendening says he will seriously consider Owens' opinion.

The Maryland Port Land Use Advisory Council, on which Owens sits, is scheduled to vote on the proposal Feb. 10.

Owens' decision is being closely watched by area residents who oppose the traffic that the speedway would bring.

"This just makes me sick. I feel like I'm going to throw up," said Marcia Drenzyk, co-chairwoman of Citizens Against the Racing Stadium Site, a neighborhood association. "I find it very inappropriate that Mr. Gilligan's bad judgment would put her in this position, because I believe that Mrs. Owens is a person of impeccable integrity."

Speedway supporters argue that it would bring millions of tax dollars to Anne Arundel, helping Owens to fulfill a campaign pledge to boost funding for education without raising taxes.

"The economic benefits of the racetrack would be terrific, $4 [million] to $5 million a year for the county if it gets up and running," Gilligan said yesterday. "It's being proposed for an industrial area. And there are all the jobs that would be produced building the track. Perhaps hundreds and hundreds of jobs."

Gilligan said that an attorney for the track developers called not long ago and asked him to perform legal work and lobbying duties. Gilligan said that he agreed to help, although he'd never lobbied for anybody before, concentrating his law practice on criminal and civil cases.

Gilligan said that shortly after Owens took office Dec. 7, he set up a meeting to introduce Owens and her other top adviser, Billy Chaney, to track developers Mattioli and Missy Berge.

Before that meeting, Owens had said almost nothing positive about the track in public.

During her campaign, she criticized the county council's move to change zoning laws to allow the speedway, charging that the process appeared to be hurried and seemed to limit public participation. Owens also criticized the project's potential impact on Pasadena-area residents.

After last month's meeting in the Arundel Center, Owens told The Sun that she liked the idea of a speedway in the county but opposed the Pasadena site.

In addition to arranging the meeting with Owens last month, Gilligan appeared with the developers during a county council meeting yesterday.

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