Essex group's leaders at odds

3 officials resign over actions of organization head

They fought SB 509 in '00

March 31, 2002|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Three officers of the organization that defeated Baltimore County's redevelopment law in 2000 have resigned in a clash with the group's president over fund raising and what they call political maneuvering.

The group, Essex-Middle River Community In Action, gained national attention for leading the fight against Senate Bill 509, which would have allowed the county to condemn properties in its efforts to revitalize the eastern waterfront and Randallstown. Though approved by the General Assembly and signed by the governor, the law was rejected in a November 2000 referendum.

This month, Chairman Rick Impallaria, Treasurer Georgeann Lynch and board member Jackie Nickel resigned from EMRCIA over differences with the president, Janice Hundt. Impallaria and Lynch have formed Essex Middle River Community Forum Inc., which they say supports the anti-SB 509 movement's original populist intent.

Throughout the fight against SB 509, EMRCIA portrayed itself as a grass-roots effort against government power. But the group is a for-profit corporation, with Hundt as the chief officer and stockholder, according to state documents and Hundt's admission at a public meeting Monday. This is contrary to EMRCIA's by-laws, adopted in July 2000, which say, "The EMRCIA shall be a non-partisan, non-sectarian, non-profit organization."

"From the start, EMRCIA was portrayed as a grass-roots group opposed to government condemning people's property, but in reality it had a hidden agenda that most people did not know about," said Impallaria, who owns an auto body shop. "It wasn't a community organization. ... It was `support Janice Hundt.'"

Hundt, a resident of Forest Hill in Harford County, also is treasurer of EMRCIA's political arm, Citizens For Property Rights. A close friend and ally of east-side Del. Diane DeCarlo, Hundt plans to move to Baltimore County and has hinted that she will run for office.

EMRCIA described itself as nonprofit as recently as October, when the group made $3,400 from the raffle of a hunting rifle and fishing gear. On the raffle tickets, EMRCIA was identified as "A non-profit Community Organization fighting for Citizens' Constitutional Rights." According to EMRCIA's records, Hundt sold 133 of the tickets, never disputing the language identifying the group as nonprofit.

Lobbyists hired

Raffles, bull roasts and individual contributions generated most of the money for EMRCIA. The funds were used to pay for buses to take protesters to Annapolis during the 2000 session of the General Assembly, and for printing and sign-making, among other costs, Hundt and others say.

But EMRCIA, in early 2000, spent $14,000 to hire three lobbyists in a doomed effort to fight SB 509 in the legislature - though supporters and at least one former officer of the group say they did not know about the lobbyists until recently, according to documents and Hundt.

Hundt said she doesn't recall who recommended hiring the lobbyists - Maurice "Mo" Wyatt, Paul Weisengoff and J. William Pitcher - but Hundt and others met with two of them in the Annapolis office of DeCarlo, an Essex Democrat.

Of the lobbyists, Wyatt received the highest commission: $7,500 between March 10 and April 30, 2000.

"I worked hard on this issue; it became emotional for me," said Weisengoff, a former legislator from South Baltimore who is semi-retired in Ocean Pines.

Weisengoff said he worked to get the group exposure and advised DeCarlo and Hundt, calling Hundt "the woman who hired me, a nice girl."

Wyatt, traveling in Europe, was unavailable to comment, and Pitcher did not return telephone calls.

During Monday's EMRCIA meeting at the Commodore Hall in Essex, new treasurer Wanda Codd reported that the group had $9,200 in cash on hand; Citizens for Property Rights had $10,300; and the overall debt was $16,752.

The revelations about EMRCIA's status have fractured long-time friendships and political alliances on the east side, where the county is dedicating more than $800 million in state and county funds for redevelopment.

"I am very surprised at all of this," said Carol Hirschburg, a Republican consultant who gave $130 to the anti-SB 509 cause and who collected signatures for the petitions that led to the referendum. "A for-profit corporation and hiring three Annapolis lobbyists - this certainly is not my impression of what they were supposed to be."

Impallaria and others say that Hundt did not misappropriate funds but instead consolidated her hold on a group that grew into a political force on the east side and throughout the county.

"I was treasurer in title only," said Lynch, whose family has resided in Middle River since 1880. "Janice [Hundt] wrote the checks and made the decisions. I basically carried the money to the bank."

"We trusted her. There are a lot of people feeling deceived," Lynch added. "In retrospect, we should have demanded to be more involved in the daily workings of the group."

Hundt responds

Hundt brushed off her critics.

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