Arundel land buy leads to probe

Gary authorized $1 million purchase from a contributor

Speed of deal questioned

May 08, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County state's attorney has launched an investigation into former County Executive John G. Gary's decision to have his staff pay a campaign contributor $1 million for 7 acres in Maryland City, the prosecutor's office said yesterday.

A spokeswoman from that office confirmed that the investigation is under way but would not discuss it. Two county officials, speaking on the condition they not be named, said investigators visited county offices this week and collected documents relating to the deal.

"I can confirm it, but we cannot provide any details of an active investigation," said Kristin Riggin, spokeswoman for State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, a Democrat.

In the closing weeks of his foundering re-election campaign, Republican Gary held a news conference at the site -- just a few strides from Laurel Park's stables -- to publicize his success in establishing a foothold for a police substation, soccer fields and tennis courts for under-served residents in the county's western-most reaches.

But in recent weeks, police have said the land for the substation was not needed, and recreation officials have declared the garbage-strewn parcel unsuitable for ball fields. The county's auditor -- a longtime Gary adversary -- filed a report in November expressing concern about the way the deal was handled.

Gary's successor, Democrat Janet S. Owens, has openly questioned the propriety of the purchase, and said she is considering selling the property.

"We've had questions about it since we found out about it," said Marvin Bond, Owens' chief of staff. "We didn't know why it had been done, and to what use it would be put."

In a series of recent interviews, Gary has remained adamant that the land deal was a well-intentioned effort to bring needed services to a part of the county that has been neglected in the past.

He said it wasn't until late in the process that he became aware of the land's owner, Nicholas Andrew. Andrew, a prominent developer who played a key role in the growth of the Maryland City region, donated at least $4,000 to Gary's campaign through a corporation he owned.

Neither Gary nor Andrew could be reached for comment yesterday.

"The whole thing may have looked rushed," Gary said in a recent interview. "But that was because I wanted to get the deal done before I left office. I had made a commitment to the community."

The speed with which the deal went through -- it was initiated in August and closed in November -- raised concerns among some county officials.

Auditor Teresa Sutherland criticized the decision to wire $1 million to Andrew from the county's Advanced Land Acquisition fund, saying a series of approvals and reviews were sidestepped. She did not allege that any laws were broken.

In the rush to complete the deal, though, the county bypassed some safeguards typically employed to make sure it pays a fair price, records from the purchase show.

Robert M. Pollock, the senior assistant county attorney, said the county always hires at least two appraisers before negotiating such a costly purchase.

But in this case, the county hired a single appraiser, who assessed the parcel at $100,000 less than the sale price. A second appraisal -- which valued the land at more than $1 million -- was paid for by Andrew.

Tom Burke, a public works official who helps arrange many of the county's land purchases -- though not the Andrew property -- said once appraisals are done, the county usually waits for an environmental review to be completed before closing the deal. But in this case, county officials were still receiving portions of the review after they had wired payment to Andrew.

The consultant hired to conduct the environmental review raised questions about an underground storage tank and dumping that occurred on the property, but gave "time constraints" as the reason no details were available. Two days before the purchase was completed, a follow-up report noted that materials from the leaky tank had been cleaned up.

Still, even after Andrew was paid, more environmental questions have been left unanswered.

Spurgeon R. Eismeier Sr., the county real estate official who handled the deal, could not be reached for comment.

The two department heads listed on documents as being regularly informed of the Andrew land purchase -- former Central Services director Jerome W. Klasmeier and County Attorney Phillip F. Scheibe -- both said they played minor roles in the deal.

In interviews yesterday, they said that they did not have intimate knowledge of the process and could not comment on details of the deal.

Pub Date: 5/08/99

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