State's attorney must help clarify Gary land deals

Comment

May 23, 1999|By Norris West

FORMER ANNE Arundel County Executive John G. Gary's land deals, made in the twilight of his administration, are indisputably controversial.

It's another thing to assert that they were criminal.

The Anne Arundel County state's attorney is investigating Mr. Gary's actions in the purchase of a property in Maryland City from a connected businessman. The former executive also raised questions by buying 26 wooded acres in Odenton that landed another political insider a healthy $81,000 commission for his real estate firm.

It is fair to raise questions about the wisdom of these deals.

Were they done to win votes in Maryland City and Odenton, two growing areas?

Were they done to enrich friends and political donors?

Jay Winer, who earned the commission, was a big contributor to Mr. Gary's campaign. Did Mr. Gary bypass the capital budget process by using the county's Advanced Land Acquisition Fund to buy the Maryland City site for a police substation without proper input from the County Council?

These questions deserve answers.

However, the state's attorney investigation raises the stakes. The hint of criminal wrongdoing makes Mr. Gary look corrupt. And distances him from the reputation he enjoyed as a popular county official.

If State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee finds reasonable cause to investigate Mr. Gary's actions, he is obligated to move forward. But if it is clear that his actions and those of others involved do not belong on the criminal docket, he cannot let the charges linger.

Not the first conflict

This is not the first conflict problem for Mr. Gary, it should be noted. His campaign borrowed $7,500 from his predecessor, Robert R. Neall, for his 1994 campaign, before he hired Mr. Neall as a consultant without a written proposal or contract. It smelled like a political payback.

Mr. Gary, in an interview, said he has no regrets about purchasing land in the two communities because both need services.

"I'm astounded by all this hoopla," he said.

In the heat of the campaign he announced the purchase in Maryland City and his intention to build a police substation and recreation fields there. He wanted to complete the deal before including it in his capital budget, even though that seemed like putting last things first.

He was able to complete the deal without County Council advice because the money came from a so-called Advanced Land Acquisition Fund. He could draw money from it without the council's approval.

Nevertheless, he says he discussed the property with community leaders, and went through the county's law office (which answers to him) and other administrative channels also (within his control).

The county paid $1 million to developer Nicholas Andrew for the property.

"We clearly stated, as I did when I first came into office, that we wanted to put police stations in the outlying areas to reduce response times and put police officers back on the street as fast as we could," Mr. Gary said.

Lost Maryland City anyway

But he failed to win re-election and was unable to follow through on his promised substation. In fact, he lost Maryland City precincts to Janet S. Owens, 1,493 to 1,304. Ms. Owens, now county executive, has no interest in the project.

The land purchases in Odenton also raise eyebrows. Mr. Winer, the developer, who brokered the properties, chaired a committee charged with selecting a site for a regional library and a community college campus.

Mr. Gary said Mr. Winer's committee first favored the site of a bowling alley, in which Mr. Winer did not have a financial interest, but that property proved to be too small.

Mr. Gary reiterated his earlier publicized contention that Mr. Winer is such a presence in Odenton, it is impossible to do anything in that community without benefiting him in some way. He disputed assertions that Mr. Winer dictated the decision, saying the committee had a number of strong personalities.

Mr. Gary also lost in Odenton precincts to Ms. Owens, 2,970 to 2,305.

Mr. Winer could -- and should -- have avoided the appearance of conflict of interest by removing himself from discussions involving property in which he had a financial stake. His actions deserve scrutiny.

`Stop mouthing off'

But how much scrutiny does Mr. Gary deserve for the deals? That question needs to be resolved soon.

"I had a 16-year public career, during which I built a good reputation," Mr. Gary said. "If he's [Mr. Weathersbee] got proof of something we've done, let him come forward with it and stop mouthing off about it. He should be specific about it."

Norris P. West is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County. He can be reached by e-mail at norris.west@baltsun.com.

Pub Date: 5/23/99

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