Eight days after the City Council voted in April to allow businessman Edwin F. Hale Sr. to raise 14 billboards downtown despite a citywide ban, Hale invited the council to a dinner that cost $1,413 at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar at the Inner Harbor.
Hale, chairman of 1st Mariner Bank and a campaign donor to many at the table, said he planned the evening to explain how hard his bank works to lend money in the city's poor neighborhoods, which had been questioned during the debate over the billboard legislation. Then Hale asked what he might do to win the city's banking services contract, handling millions of dollars in checks and cash for the city every day.
To those who know the 56-year-old banker and developer, the move was classic Hale: a blunt but often successful mix of business and politics, public service and profit.
Over the past eight years, as the small bank he founded has grown into a billion-dollar enterprise, the rough-cut former iron worker has become a political powerhouse with an increasing amount of business before City Hall.
But Hale's relationship with the City Council has come under scrutiny since the U.S. attorney's office launched a wide-ranging investigation of the council. Prosecutors have issued subpoenas asking council members to turn over documents on several subjects, including any financial interactions they might have had with Hale.
It's not clear what the investigators are looking for. The federal inquiry follows articles in The Sun that questioned the City Council's hiring practices and receipt of gifts from companies with business before the city, including free passes from the firm SMG Inc., which manages the 1st Mariner Arena.
Hale said he is puzzled and angry that he has been dragged into discussions of the investigation, because, he said, he never gave any gifts or loans to anyone on the council. He said all of his campaign contributions, as well as the April 15 dinner, have been above-board and legal.
"I'm embarrassed that my name is even mentioned," said Hale. "I'm a believer in what I'm doing. ... I'm hiring people, I'm improving properties, and I think I'm doing good for the city. To be brought into this is so unsavory."
The City Council has been almost unanimously supportive of most of Hale's projects, with some members praising him as a rare developer who doesn't ask the city for tax breaks and listens to the community.
But council members have also frequently asked Hale for campaign money, he says, and his bank's political action committee has responded by spreading $7,600 among 12 council members over the past four years; his lobbyist, Frank Boston III, who also has other clients, has distributed an additional $4,850 to the council.
Hale and his political action committee have also given $7,500 to Mayor Martin O'Malley and tens of thousands dollars more to other local and state politicians over the past four years.
"They send written solicitations. I get a stack of them a day," Hale said of requests for campaign money, laughing. "I get inundated with it. Since this town has become a branch town, and not a headquarters town, there are people like me who sit around at lunch and we say, `When is this going to end?' It's always been part of the process. I reluctantly got into this [giving campaign money] because that's just the way business is done."
The son of a utility line worker from Highlandtown, Hale is chairman and pitchman for the bank he started on Clinton Street on the city's waterfront in 1995, expanding it from a handful of employees to almost 700 and opening 22 branch offices around the state. He earned $470,000 in salary and bonuses from the bank last year, according to a May financial report.
Although Hale owns a $500,000 waterfront condo in Canton, he lives much of the time at his home on the Eastern Shore, a $1.1 million, 155-acre waterfront estate near St. Michaels.
`I work smart'
"I'm not college-educated," said Hale, a former trucking company owner, who wore jeans and an open-collared shirt as he was interviewed at his bank's new headquarters in Canton. "But I like to think that I work smart and I work hard. There's a lot of blocking and tackling with what I've done with my life."
David Tufaro, a developer and Republican donor who has been on the opposite side of the political fence in the city, described Hale as a tough but honest businessman who plays the same political game that many developers feel compelled to play.
"He's a very hard-nosed, pragmatic man who plays the game fairly," Tufaro said. "He tends to be a Democratic supporter, but he has a right to do that just as I'm a supporter of Republican candidates."
An early and influential financial supporter of O'Malley's campaigns, Hale has also become involved over the past four years in a broadening array of enterprises that require city approval.