Balto. Co. officials back bid process

Council members would advertise for real estate brokers

April 10, 2001|By David Nitkin and Walter F. Roche Jr. | David Nitkin and Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

A majority of Baltimore County Council members would open the process for choosing real estate brokers following a report of no-bid deals involving an agent with ties to the county executive's special assistant.

The county should advertise for brokers when it looks for office space, several council members said, rather than rely on an unpublicized, no-bid list that contains the names of the few agents who knew to call and get on it.

"Maybe a change would be to put notification in the paper," said Councilman John A. Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat. "Not that there is any wrongdoing going on, but it would change the perception."

The Sun reported Sunday that an agent who has split commissions on non-county deals with the wife of special assistant Robert J. Barrett has participated in $3 million worth of county real estate transactions since County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger took office.

In two of the transactions, the agent, Robert A. Freedman, was selected from a short, little-known list of brokers that is unusual among area governments. The state of Maryland and most neighboring counties use competitive bidding for the leasing of office space.

Freedman has worked with Debra L. Barrett on real estate deals and with Robert Barrett in the commercial real estate business in the early 1990s. Robert Barrett has played a leading role in the county's real estate dealings since 1994. The Barretts have said that they received no money from county deals, though Freedman has earned thousands of dollars in commissions.

"I get back to a basic thing that I've preached: The appearance of things, the perception of things in the public's mind, is the reality," said Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county-Owings Mills Republican. "While there may be nothing wrong here ... the fact remains that there are ethical questions raised.

"I can assure you that the brothers on the council will be discussing this, and I will certainly bring it up if nobody else does," said McIntyre, one of four members on the seven-person council contacted yesterday. "From that discussion may very well come legislation."

Unlike Baltimore County, the state of Maryland and Howard and Anne Arundel counties advertise for office space and select the best sealed bid.

In 1996, Robert Barrett asked Freedman to take part in a real estate search that resulted in the $1.9 million purchase of an industrial building in Glen Arm for a vehicle repair shop. In 1999, and again this year, Freedman was chosen to arrange five-year leases for Health Department offices.

Barrett and Ruppersberger say the system is fair, legal and expedient. Any broker who asks to participate has a chance to get county business, Barrett says.

Yesterday, two large brokerage firms contacted the county with requests for consideration. MacKenzie Commercial Real Estate Services asked to be added to the broker list, and Trammell Crow Co. called to update county records. Trammell Crow purchased Casey & Associates, which had been on the list, in 1999. County officials said they had tried unsuccessfully to get in touch with Casey in the past few years.

But some say getting on the list hasn't always been so easy.

George Panos, chief executive of Thornhill Properties, said he wrote to Barrett about two years ago, offering the company's real estate services.

"We told them we were right across the street and were willing to help them," Panos said. Asked if he got a response, he said, "I don't believe so."

Thornhill Properties is not among the four names on the county's broker list. Two of the four are connected to Freedman: his old firm, Corridor Commercial Real Estate Group, and his new employer, Ryan Commercial. County records show that Ryan was added after Freedman told the county he was changing jobs.

"I never knew there was a list," Panos said. "We've always had a good relationship with Baltimore County. I just figured they didn't need anything that we had."

Council Chairman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, said he supports advertising for brokers but isn't troubled by long-standing ties between Freedman and the Barretts.

"If I'm in the private sector and I have a guy I can trust, if I go into government I'm going to use him," Moxley said.

Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican, said he wants the real estate system "open to everybody."

"That way, you can't say you are favoring a select few who know the process," he said. "My next question is: Are there any other similar practices that we should open up?"

Douglas B. Riley, a former councilman from Towson and a candidate for county executive in 2002, echoed the call for increased disclosure of government real estate transactions.

"Either the administration does a very good job covering its tracks or there is only the potential for chicanery without any real abuse going on," Riley said. "It is akin to the no-bid trash-hauling contracts that the council investigated a couple of times. The possibility for wrongdoing is there, but in reality, the system works efficiently, effectively, and for less money than if the county competitively bid these routes.

"I would submit that if competitive bidding is too cumbersome for some situations, then a hybrid approach might be taken, Riley said. "Rely upon the private sector - notwithstanding its healthy profit motive - but open the process up wide for inspection.

"Why shouldn't the public know exactly how much a real estate broker makes on a public deal, why he or she was chosen to broker the acquisition, and with whom he or she is sharing the commission?"

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