Putting public interest first

Conflicts: Anne Arundel County executive must make economic body more accountable.

August 20, 1999

IT'S A GROWING problem: Agencies privatized by government increasingly seem to think they can spend public money with no accountability.

We saw this with the Injured Workers Insurance Fund, which avoided competitive bidding in awarding contracts. It happened again with MMG Ventures, which invested Maryland tax dollars in out-of-state companies.

Now comes the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp., created by the county six years ago to lure new businesses. Its directors are volunteers who are supposed to put the county's interests first. But recent Sun stories show they've been looking out for No. 1 instead.

Last year, board members awarded their own businesses $20,000 in contracts for goods and services. Four directors received contracts for legal and financial services, computer software and stationery provided to the quasi-public agency.

Even worse, the board sought to shield these conflicts from the public. Its Internal Revenue Service report falsely said directors did no business with the agency.

Such practices cannot be tolerated by County Executive Janet S. Owens. Three board members have gone. She ought to ask for the resignation of the one remaining who participated in these shenanigans, Leonard A. Blackshear. His software firm was paid more than $2,000 for services to the board. He said he believed full disclosure meant that fellow board members knew of the deals. His offer to return the money he received isn't good enough.

Former Economic Development Director Richard J. Morgan resigned abruptly, before an audit of the agency was released. His successor, William A. Badger Jr., did himself a disservice when he stonewalled on disclosing pertinent information. If he is to continue serving in that position, he ought to be set straight on what is allowable conduct.

These latest errors came on the heels of recent disclosures that a real estate firm operated by Jay Winer, board chairman, profited when he used his position to persuade the county to buy property for a library and community college. Although an ethics panel cleared Mr. Winer, the deal seemed untoward.

A pattern is emerging, and Ms. Owens needs to put a stop to it. She has expressed outrage over the misdeeds. But Ms. Owens needs to provide assurances that the agency will not betray the public it's supposed to protect, or hide behind a cloak of secrecy when the public's interest is at stake. And she ought to seek commitments that the board will adopt strict bylaws that prohibit members from helping themselves to county tax dollars.

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