City official's 2nd job raises conflict issue

Development chief joins company competing for Bromo Seltzer project

Rival for bid complains

O'Malley aides asked her to stay through transition to avoid gap in projects

January 23, 2000|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's director of development is on the payroll of a company that is competing for her agency's approval to transform the city-owned Bromo Seltzer office tower into a residential high-rise.

In an arrangement approved by City Hall and condemned by a government watchdog group, Catherine Fennell is working as both the city's $79,300-a-year director of development and since Jan. 1 as the full-time director of the city branch of Philadelphia-based Pennrose Properties Inc.

She said she was approached by Pennrose about a job in November, the same month the development company submitted its bid on the Bromo Seltzer project. Fennell and company officials were well-acquainted: In her role overseeing development, she had recommended Pennrose for three projects on city property in the past two years.

The administration of Mayor Martin O'Malley asked Fennell in December to continue working for the city and its housing authority until the end of March -- despite her taking a job with Pennrose in January -- to prevent any delay in development projects during the administration's transition.

Fennell said Friday that she has been careful since Jan. 1 to avoid any discussions of Pennrose's $2.5 million proposal to build 11 upscale apartments in the tower near Camden Yards. She said the company's three projects in the city are being overseen by her assistant and other city officials, who are reporting directly to her boss, acting Housing Commissioner M. J. "Jay" Brodie.

"I have recused myself from all Pennrose deals that have anything to do with the city," said Fennell, a former bank vice president who was hired to serve under former Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III five years ago.

But a watchdog organization and Pennrose's competitor in the Bromo Seltzer tower project -- which is to be awarded next month -- said Fennell's dual employment is a blatant violation of the city's ethics laws and might give Pennrose an inside track.

"Good grief. You're kidding," said Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland. "It's pretty surprising that a new administration with a zero-tolerance standard toward crime wouldn't have the same standard with its own ethics laws."

Brodie said the two jobs should not create a conflict of interest as long as Fennell keeps her promise not to discuss her company's projects with city officials.

O'Malley said he knew about the arrangement and thought it would be helpful to keep such an experienced person on the job during the transition.

"We are all trying to get through this transition process as smoothly as we can," said O'Malley, who took office last month. "If, legally, this should not be done, then we will undo it. If it's wrong, we will fix it. We will look into this."

Fennell did not seek an opinion about her two jobs from the city's Board of Ethics, which issues interpretations of city ethics laws. She said Friday that she probably should have taken this step.

David Shull, a partner in the Bromo Development Group competing with Pennrose for the right to build apartments in the historic tower, said his company might file a protest against the bidding process because of Fennell's dual employment.

"It sounds like she is directing as much development work to her own company as she can," Shull said. "Whether or not she's actually voting on it [the Bromo Seltzer proposal], she certainly is friends with everybody voting on it."

The landmark tower at 15 S. Eutaw St. holds city arts offices, but last summer Henson suggested that a developer should convert it into an apartment building as part of an effort to draw more residents downtown.

Key role in three projects

Before taking her job with Pennrose, Fennell played a key role in awarding development rights to the company three times.

She sat on the selection review panel that recommended that Henson and the housing authority select Pennrose to build the $8 million, 80-unit Cherry Hill Senior Housing project on Cherry Hill Road in April 1999.

Fennell also participated in the bidding review panel that recommended Pennrose over three competitors for the renovation of the $8 million, 55-unit Riviera apartment complex at 901 Druid Park Lake Drive in May 1998.

And Fennell recommended last year that the city allow Baltimore-based Savannah Development Corp. to take Pennrose as a partner in the $8.5 million, 75-unit Oaks at Liberty senior housing project in the former Howard Park Elementary School at 4801 Liberty Heights Ave.

One of Fennell's housing department subordinates, Walter Horton, created the city's requests to developers for proposals for these projects. And Horton helped to craft the specifications for developers competing for the Bromo Seltzer project, which had a Nov. 26 deadline for bids.

First meeting with company

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