One by one on the afternoon of Aug. 31, family and key political supporters of Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger pulled into the parking lot of a nondescript five-story office building just off York Road in Timonium.
By 1:30, they were all there - a group that included Ruppersberger's father, wife, sister and brother, but not the executive himself. They gathered to map strategy for the Baltimore County Democrat's expected bid to become Maryland's next governor.
They met in a suite of offices that serves not only as the home of Ruppersberger's campaign committee, but as the headquarters for three Ruppersberger family businesses as well.
The fourth floor of 30 E. Padonia Road is where Ruppersberger's public and private worlds converge.
As executive, Ruppersberger steers Maryland's third-most-populous county, a $105,000-a-year job that has positioned him well for a run for higher office.
As a businessman, he owns a portfolio of private companies that includes a bill collection agency, a credit counseling firm and a marketing outfit that sells a pothole-patching material sometimes used on county roads.
Ruppersberger says the businesses do not conflict with his public responsibilities. Indeed, he says he spends seven days a week attending to county tasks, having divorced himself from the day-to-day operations of his private holdings.
"I had a profession, another life before I became county executive," said Ruppersberger, a former assistant state's attorney. "Once I became county executive, it's a full-time job, and it's all that I do."
But the business and political worlds of Dutch Ruppersberger are as intertwined as the space they occupy, creating a series of potential conflicts. Though the county executive says he has always made full disclosure of his interests, public records show otherwise.
The Sun has found:
Ruppersberger, in five years as county executive, has not once disclosed the clients of his collection agency, Rupp and Associates. The clients include three of the 10 largest landlords in the county. As county executive, Ruppersberger sets policies that have an impact on those client landlords. Through a county-administered federal rent subsidy program, two of his clients have collected payments of $4.4 million over the past three calendar years.
Those same landlord clients and members of their families have contributed more than $40,000 to Ruppersberger's campaign committee since he first ran for county executive in 1994.
Ruppersberger's biggest client, Hendersen-Webb Inc., by far the largest county landlord, has collected at least $400,000 in federal grants in the past four years with the help of the Baltimore County Police Department.
Despite a county ethics code ban on gifts from companies that do business with the county, Ruppersberger has taken free trips and vacations as a guest of the head of MBNA, the credit card company that has regional headquarters in Hunt Valley. MBNA and its executives donated $114,850 to Ruppersberger's campaign in 1999 alone. The credit card firm is also a client of the executive's collection agency.
In January, more than five years after he took office, Ruppersberger formed a blind trust to oversee Rupp and Associates and two other firms located in the Timonium building: International Marketing Network Inc. and Smart Debt Solutions, a debt counseling firm owned with his son.
Public officials often rely on blind trusts as a shield against ethical conflicts. Typically, the trust's beneficiary is unaware of where assets are invested, so that their official actions won't be influenced by their private interests.
In Ruppersberger's case, the assets are three companies he founded.
The purpose of Ruppersberger's trust, according to documents filed with the county ethics board, is "to comply with the highest standards of the ethics laws."
The trust is controlled by two men with long-standing ties to the executive. One is Ruppersberger's accountant; the other is a financial adviser and a longtime director of Rupp and Associates.
Ruppersberger says the trust leaves him in the same position as a shareholder in corporations. "It's no different than owning stock in Verizon or BGE or whatever."
But experts say the legal agreement does little to shield him from potential ethical questions.
"Even in the best of circumstances, a blind trust can lead to conflicts or the appearance of a conflict," said Peter Eisner, managing director of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based public watchdog group. "Certainly, having your personal accountant as a trustee is not even putting yourself at a distance."
Ruppersberger says he has never taken any actions as county executive to help his private businesses. But experts say public officials, to ensure the public's trust, should strive to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Asked if he thought his holdings could create the appearance of such a conflict, Ruppersberger said, "Absolutely not."
Rupp and Associates