Gary donor stood to gain

Winer owned land near site slated for development

`Appearance of conflict'

Developer pushed project while on panel, records show

May 19, 1999|By Laura Sullivan and Matthew Mosk | Laura Sullivan and Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

A $1.3 million land deal that outgoing Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary authorized in the last days of his term may have netted a major campaign donor more than just a hefty real estate commission.

State records show that Jay Winer, who heads two influential county planning committees, orchestrated the deal while holding a stake in more than $6.1 million worth of nearby property, the value of which could increase because of the county's investment.

When county officials agreed in November to buy the 26 acres in central Odenton, Winer's real estate firm collected $81,000 in commissions.

As Winer's role in the purchase surfaced this week, County Executive Janet S. Owens said she believes the officials may have blundered by taking planning advice from someone with such a financial stake in the decision.

"It's very troubling," said Owens, who took office the week after the agreement was finalized. "It certainly has the appearance of a conflict."

Winer did not return calls made to his home and office, and, through his secretary, declined to speak with Sun reporters. Gary said he was unaware Winer owned the adjacent property and that it shouldn't present a problem.

"It would be impossible to do anything to improve Odenton that didn't somehow improve and enhance something the Winer family owns," he said.

Gary championed the purchase as the key to building a regional library and community college building -- projects that would help blow the dust off a 30-year-old plan to transform central Odenton from a seedy strip of bars and fast-food joints into a new suburban mecca.

But the library has been scratched from the county budget. And this week, community college officials said they are negotiating to buy property at Fort Meade for a west campus.

And the county may not have budgeted enough to resolve the complex legal problems that burden one portion of the land because of ownership questions that go back a century.

All this has county officials re-examining this purchase and another Gary made in the heat of his foundering race for re-election. Both deals put money in the pockets of campaign donors.

One of the agreements involved Nicholas Andrew, a Maryland City developer who gave $3,000 to Gary's campaign. The county paid Andrew $1 million for a seven-acre parcel. The other agreement involved Winer, who donated $4,500 to Gary in the past two years.

While politics and land development often collide in Anne Arundel County -- especially in the fast-growing western corner -- documents and interviews suggest Winer's involvement was more than incidental. He appeared to be lobbying the county to buy the properties from several directions.

As chair of the Odenton Town Plan oversight committee directly responsible for guiding planning in the region -- a position to which Gary appointed him -- Winer was urging the county to consider a civic complex on the parcel, according to committee members and county officials.

Winer also heads the Odenton Small Area Planning Committee.

At the same time, county planner Michael Fox heard from the library administrator about making use of the property. In an April 28, 1998 internal county memo, the administrator, Ronald Kozlowski, said Winer advised him to push the county into action.

Then, the county's administrative officer heard from the properties' owners, whom Winer also represented. On June 16 and 17, the county received identical letters: one from a bank in Kentucky that owned half of the land, and the other from a Baltimore lawyer representing the owner of the other half.

Both letters said the owners had understood there was a "perceived level of interest by the decision makers in Anne Arundel County, including the county executive."

County Administrative Officer Thomas C. Andrews sent copies of his response -- expressing interest in the land -- to Winer.

While Fox agrees that Winer may have had input in the process, he says that doesn't negate the fact that the land is an ideal spot for the county project. He said a range of people, including Gary, Kozlowski, and the other 10 members of one of Winer's committees, supported the location.

Fox said he attributes Winer's participation in the process as a fulfillment of civic duty, and a genuine interest in Odenton's future. Winer lives in Baltimore County, but Fox and others believe Winer's enthusiasm stems from "nostalgia" for a town his parents years ago helped rescue from economic decline.

Land records and county documents show his interest is also financial.

Through his company, A. J. Properties, Winer brokers many Odenton land deals, enticing buyers with dozens of maroon and white signs peppering vacant lots and empty buildings, promising "the future home of the Odenton town center."

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