Owens worries over appearance of conflict

Racetrack lobbyist is aide's brother-in-law

January 20, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens said yesterday that she is worried that there might be an appearance of a conflict of interest if she continues to employ a chief of staff related to a lobbyist trying to win Owens' support for a 60,000-seat auto racetrack.

Owens added that she has not decided whether to keep Linda Gilligan as one of her top Cabinet officers.

Gilligan is the sister-in-law of Michael Gilligan, whom Owens dismissed last week as an unpaid adviser when she learned he was being paid by Chesapeake Motorsports Development Corp. and had not told her or registered as a lobbyist.

The company is trying to persuade Owens to support construction of a racing stadium south of the Key Bridge in Pasadena. Many residents oppose the project because of traffic, noise and environmental concerns.

Owens said she is talking to her chief of staff about how her administration might discuss the track without running into ethical problems.

"I am concerned about an appearance of a conflict of interest," Owens said. "She's my chief of staff, and my government is too important" to be compromised.

However, the county executive added that she does not believe Linda Gilligan has done anything wrong. On Friday, Owens criticized Michael Gilligan for not informing her of his work for the track and for not following county rules on lobbying.

"She's a very well-qualified person, very professional, and I think she's been an unfortunate victim in this whole thing," Owens said.

Robert C. Douglas, a spokesman for the developers, said yesterday that one solution might be to prohibit Michael Gilligan from lobbying Linda Gilligan, Owens or the executive branch of government.

The developers are trying to persuade the County Council to reject a bill proposed by Councilwoman A. Shirley Murphy that would reverse a zoning law change that the last County Council made to allow the track.

"There has been some discussion that the way to eliminate the appearance of impropriety by anyone on Mrs. Owens' staff would be to limit his [Michael Gilligan's] activities to dealing with the County Council," Douglas said.

One neighborhood activist questioned whether Douglas' work for the track raises an ethical question.

Douglas is the former press secretary and an unpaid adviser to state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who might vote on leasing the state-owned land near the Key Bridge to the developers as comptroller and member of the state's Board of Public Works.

Douglas, an attorney, volunteered for Schaefer's campaign and is helping to advise him on ways to improve the working relationship between the state comptroller's office and the state's Registrar of Wills.

"I believe the appearance of impropriety always exists when there is a possibility that a person can influence an elected official," said Marcia Drenzyk, leader of the Citizens Against the Racing Stadium Site.

Schaefer said it was absurd to suggest Douglas would influence his position on the track. The former governor said he's supported the track project for more than two years. Douglas has been working for the developers since July.

"He hasn't talked to me about it and he respects my position," Schaefer said. "I've been in favor of this racetrack since it was proposed in Baltimore County. I'm strongly in favor of it. I think it's a great economic development tool for the state of Maryland."

Pub Date: 1/20/99

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