Ethics panel clears Baltimore delegate in real estate deal

Fulton's transaction with lobbyists won't undergo formal probe

January 27, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Del. Tony E. Fulton broke no ethics laws in receiving a lucrative real estate commission steered to him by two prominent State House lobbyists, the General Assembly's ethics committee decided yesterday.

The 12-member committee cleared Fulton after a half-hour discussion in which it decided the matter did not warrant a formal investigation. The panel did not interview Fulton, called no witnesses and made no effort to resolve conflicts between accounts from Fulton and from others familiar with the transaction.

The ethics committee action grew out of an article in The Sun that described Fulton's involvement in a real estate transaction on behalf of lobbying partners Gerard E. Evans and John R. Stierhoff.

Evans, Stierhoff and an investment partner purchased an Annapolis office building for $600,000 in November. As their agent, Fulton collected a commission of roughly $9,000.

Fulton is an associate residential broker with Long & Foster Inc. in Baltimore County who does not routinely handle commercial property in Annapolis, according to the firm.

The ethics committee, while absolving Fulton of wrongdoing, did agree to send him a letter saying the real estate deal created what members called "an appearance of impropriety."

Fulton declined to be interviewed by The Sun but told WBAL radio that he was "vindicated" by the committee's action. He dismissed the committee's suggestion that his actions might look bad.

"The letter of the law is the law," said Fulton, a Baltimore Democrat. "I don't know what you do beyond that."

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who had expressed concerns about Fulton's involvement in the deal, said he was satisfied with the committee's action. "I do think clearly what we're dealing with is a perception issue," said Taylor. "There was no law violated."

But the head of a watchdog group that lobbies for stricter ethics law said the panel had failed to investigate the facts of the case adequately and did not focus on the appropriateness of Fulton's involvement in a business deal with lobbyists.

"That's the heart of it -- that this is a lucrative business deal between a member of the legislature and two of the highest-paid lobbyists in the state," said Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland. "That transaction is a presumed conflict of interest."

The ethics committee, made up of six senators and six delegates, discussed the matter for about 30 minutes yesterday.

The tone was set by the first speaker, Sen. Delores G. Kelley, who said Fulton had "really followed that letter of the law" because he reported the deal to the ethics committee. She said Fulton had taken part in what appeared to be an "ordinary" real estate transaction. "It doesn't seem as if anything out of the ordinary took place," said Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, a Washington County Republican, agreed that no laws were broken but added, "It probably does create a problem of perception."

Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., the committee chairman, agreed. "Here you have a legislator and lobbyists entering into a business transaction together," said Montague, a Baltimore Democrat.

"Legislators should avoid not only impropriety but the appearance of impropriety," he added.

Before the committee took up the matter, Fulton sent the panel a two-page letter explaining the transaction.

In it, Fulton acknowledged for the first time that he worked closely with the two lobbyists in their efforts to find new office space last year.

The new account differed from one he provided in an interview with a reporter before the article appeared Jan. 13.

Fulton had said in the interview that he was working not for the two lobbyists but for their business partner, a Calvert County businessman who is a longtime friend of Evans.

But in his letter, Fulton made clear he began working with Evans and Stierhoff last summer, well before the partner, Michael S. Hegarty, got involved in the deal.

"During the summer of 1998, I learned from Evans and Stierhoff that the firm was interested in seeking tenancy in another property because of escalating rent on their existing leasehold property," Fulton said.

He said he suggested several properties to the two lobbyists, including a building at 164 Conduit St. in downtown Annapolis, the building Evans, Stierhoff and their investment partner ultimately purchased.

Evans, however, has said he and Stierhoff were already aware of the Conduit Street property, which is about a block from their previous office and had been on the market for several months.

Fulton's written account of his role also omitted some information.

For example, he did not mention in the letter that he prepared two formal offers on behalf of the Evans and Stierhoff firm prior to Hegarty's involvement, according to the real estate agent for the Annapolis couple who sold the Conduit Street property.

Fulton filed a brief disclaimer last month noting that he had sold the building to Hegarty. The disclaimer mentioned that Evans and Stierhoff were partners with Hegarty in the group that purchased the property.

In that disclaimer, Fulton did not mention the extended working relationship he had with the two lobbyists in their search for office space. Under state ethics law, a legislator is presumed to have a conflict of interest if he has a close financial relationship with a lobbyist.

However, the lawmaker can continue to vote on issues affecting the lobbyist if he files a sworn statement, as Fulton did, noting the conflict and pledging impartiality in such matters.

In his letter to the committee, Fulton asserted that he had long handled properties in Anne Arundel County and had listed commercial properties as well. He provided three examples of commercial properties he had listed, all of them in Baltimore.

Sun staff writer Greg Garland contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/27/99

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