Walter Orlinsky, colorful city politician, dies at 63

Maverick's career came to end in '82 in bribery conviction

February 10, 2002|By Jacques Kelly and Frederick N. Rasmussen | Jacques Kelly and Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Walter S. Orlinsky, the maverick Democrat, former delegate and Baltimore City Council president whose colorful political career came to an end in 1982 after he pleaded guilty to accepting a bribe from a sludge-hauling firm, died yesterday of colon cancer at the Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care in Towson. He was 63.

"He was one of the most brilliant politicians in the history of Baltimore," said former state Sen. Julian "Jack" Lapides. "He was an incredible mind and was totally consumed by politics.

"He hated being No. 2 because he had no doubts about his own ability. Unfortunately, there were always people ahead of him in the No. 1 place," Mr. Lapides said.

"He was one of the brightest men I have ever known in the history of politics," comptroller and former governor William Donald Schaefer said last night. "He had some tough times, but he was a good guy, a good friend."

On an early spring afternoon in 1982, Mr. Orlinsky, then-City Council president, went to Trattoria Petrucci in Little Italy, where he accepted an envelope stuffed with $2,532 in cash from an FBI informant.

The cash was an installment on a $10,032 bribe from Modern Earthline, a Philadelphia-based company, for Mr. Orlinsky's role in helping the company secure a contract hauling sludge to abandoned strip mines in Western Maryland.

Mr. Orlinsky, whose career began amid the idealism of `60s liberalism, resigned his City Council post in September 1982 and pleaded guilty to one count of extortion. Sentenced to six months in prison, he was paroled after serving 4 1/2 months at Allenwood Prison Camp in Pennsylvania, and returned to his Bolton Hill home in 1983.

At the time of his release, Mr. Orlinsky said, "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime."

Disbarred and with his political career at an end, Mr. Orlinsky then completed 2,080 hours of court-ordered community service by working for the Regional Planning Council, co-teaching a politics course at Towson State and volunteering for the city Urban Service Agency's Project Survival.

He then embarked on a 20-year odyssey that saw him working as a restaurant maitre d' at Al's Seafood, an Eastern Avenue restaurant, and at a variety of other jobs.

A man of almost Falstaffian proportions and a taste for wide-lapeled, colorful tweed sports jackets and the occasional derby hat, Mr. Orlinsky returned to government in 1988 when then-Governor Schaefer appointed him executive director of TREE-MENDOUS MARYLAND. Under his direction, the group planted about 6.5 million trees across the state.

After that, he worked as a $10-an-hour lemonade salesman at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and founded the now-defunct Baltimore News newspaper in East Baltimore.

Two years ago, Mr. Orlinsky received a presidential pardon from President Bill Clinton.

"You can't ever quite walk away. It is something. In the way America works, this is kind of something that says - at least from a societal point of view - that you have paid your dues," he told The Sun.

"I am not sure that I shall ever be able to fully pardon myself for what I did. In my heart, there will always remain a place which says I did wrong. It will remind me of my continuing responsibility to try to heal the wounds of my sin," he said.

Since 2000, he had worked with the Housing Authority of Baltimore City as an "Energy Analyst II," in its Project Reconnect, helping families who face having their power turned off.

"He obviously had lots of experience in government, and he did what he could to help us better serve the people of the city," Mayor Martin O'Malley said. "But he was just as frail as the rest of us mortals, and he went through his travails with a great deal of courage. He didn't hide or go away; instead, he picked himself up off the mat and went on with his life."

Born in Baltimore, the son of a nationally respected linguist and biblical scholar, Mr. Orlinsky possessed an interest and fascination with politics that dated to his undergraduate days at the Johns Hopkins University, and continued while he earned his law degree from the University of Maryland Law School. As a young man, he was a City Council page and wrote letters to The Sun's editor decrying construction of the Interstate 95 highway through Baltimore and a planned bridge across the Inner Harbor.

"It is a calling he obviously loves, one that allows him to slap backs and schmooze and be his rambunctious self," noted The Sun in a 1983 profile. "But there is more: Mr. Orlinsky is a different kind of politician. He has an intellectual love of government and the way that government, at its best, can solve problems and improve the future for its citizens."

"He was a larger-than-life figure, dynamic and energetic, always interested in government-policy issues," said Frank O. Heinz, BGE president, who served with him in the General Assembly. "Wally liked both the politics of governance with the politics."

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