No-bid real estate arrangements involving county raise questions

Ruppersberger aide's former partner gets commissions on deals

April 08, 2001|By David Nitkin and Walter F. Roche Jr. | David Nitkin and Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

A real estate agent with ties to the Baltimore County executive's powerful special assistant has collected thousands of dollars in commissions through no-bid arrangements with the county government.

The agent, Robert A. Freedman, has participated in $3 million worth of transactions since C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger took office.

Freedman sometimes splits real estate commissions on transactions not involving the county with Debra L. Barrett, the wife of Ruppersberger's top assistant, Robert J. Barrett.

A residential broker with O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA, Debra Barrett, 49, has called Freedman her "partner," and the two sold a building in Timonium together this year. Freedman also worked as a partner with Robert Barrett in the commercial real estate business in the early 1990s.

Robert Barrett, 49, is a former Ruppersberger campaign manager who took a top job with the executive after his election in 1994. One of his primary tasks was redesigning how the county leases and buys real estate. Changes included setting up an unpublicized, non-competitive system for office leases that differs from the competitive process used by the state and neighboring counties.

Seven years later, Freedman is a prime beneficiary.

While Barrett and his wife say they have never received a penny from county real estate transactions, records show that Freedman has earned thousands of dollars under the Barrett system.

In one of the deals, Robert Barrett personally asked Freedman to participate. In two others, Freedman was selected from a short, little-known, no-bid list of brokers used by the county for leasing.

The no-bid list was established under the Ruppersberger administration. One of the four companies on it no longer exists, and the list grew from three names to four last year after Freedman told the county he was switching firms.

Ruppersberger said in written comments for The Sun that the county's real estate system complies with the county code. The county law office concurs.

Freedman and other brokers have obtained leases that "served the people well," Ruppersberger said, at no out-of-pocket cost to taxpayers.

Records and interviews show that Freedman took part in the following transactions:

In 1996, Robert Barrett asked Freedman to look for space for a county fire vehicle repair shop. Freedman pointed the county toward a vacant industrial building owned by Grumman Aerospace in Glen Arm. The purchase almost collapsed, but Barrett helped revive it. The county bought the property at 12200 Long Green Pike for $1.9 million.

In November 1999, the county signed a $368,836 lease for drug treatment offices in Cockeysville, with Freedman as the agent. The county's landlord at 10151 York Road is MIE Properties, whose president, Edward A. St. John, is a prominent builder and Ruppersberger supporter.

In January, Freedman brokered a $727,410 lease, with rent paid from state and federal funds, for the county branch of the Maryland Children's Health Program. The building, at 8501 LaSalle Road in Towson, is also managed by MIE Properties.

If Freedman's commission was 2 percent on the Grumman purchase, a conservative estimate of a share he would not disclose, he would have earned $38,000. Experts say commercial lease commissions average 4 percent, placing Freedman and his firm's fees from the two office deals at about $43,000.

Commission fees are paid by the landlord or property owner.

Freedman says his county contacts are infrequent and ordinary.

"I'm not the exclusive representative of the county," he said. "There are a lot of commercial real estate brokers in town, and the county tries to be good about helping different ones. Every now and then, I will call to see if they need help with any transactions."

Freedman has also had regular dealings with Debra Barrett. She said she refers customers looking for business space to Freedman, and the two split fees on completed deals, Freedman and Robert Barrett said.

Debra Barrett played down the relationship in a letter to The Sun, calling Freedman "one of 50 or more commercial colleagues" with whom she might collaborate in an area where she has little expertise. She said she has no knowledge of any deal he has completed for the county and has not received proceeds from them.

"It would certainly be a conflict because my husband is in charge of real estate for the county," she said. "Real estate is something that I don't discuss with [my husband]."

Most recently, Debra Barrett and Freedman worked together on the sale of a commercial property at 1517 York Road in Towson. The property was owned by Donald Diffenderffer, a longtime Ruppersberger campaign worker and a county liquor inspector.

In an e-mail message to a prospective client on the York Road property, Debra Barrett described Freedman as "my partner." She repeated that description in a subsequent e-mail message several months later. But Debra Barrett and her husband now say the relationship is less formal.

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