Ethics panel investigates developers

State commission puts Manekin teams' lobbying efforts under scrutiny

Bainbridge project at issue

BDC set to hear proposals for site tomorrow night

Cecil County

December 14, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

The Maryland State Ethics Commission has begun a probe of the high-powered developers who have proposed building a mini-city at the former Bainbridge Naval Training Center at Port Deposit, according to Cecil County elected officials.

Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a Cecil County Republican, said that a commission member had questioned him about lobbying efforts by the development team, which includes Richard Alter, president of Manekin LLC in Columbia; Clark Turner, president of Bel Air-based Clark Turner Cos.; and John Paterakis, a commercial developer in Baltimore.

Smigiel said he was "not at liberty to discuss details" of the probe. "I would not want to jeopardize the state's ability to pursue this matter."

The team's general outline for developing Bainbridge - a 1,200-acre former Navy boot camp - has included homes, businesses, a retirement center and parks. The team is scheduled to present its latest plan at a meeting tomorrow night.

County Commissioner Phyllis Kilby said she also has been questioned about "the lobbying efforts of the developers - the Manekin team."

"As far as their dealings with me, there was nothing I would consider illegal," she said. "They did not offer me anything. It was just a discussion."

Robert A. Hahn, general counsel for the Maryland State Ethics Commission, said that any investigation would be confidential and that he could not comment. "If we go through the process and find a violation, it becomes public at that point," he said.

Alter said he had heard rumors of the investigation regarding his lobbying efforts but that he has not considered them serious enough to contact his lawyer.

He said he has gone before various groups, including the county commissioners, Port Deposit town officials and citizens groups "trying to build a consensus for our project."

"I can unequivocally say that we have done nothing wrong," he said. "We have tried to push our position on a righteous belief that it is good for Port Deposit and Cecil County." He said he is not registered with the state as a lobbyist.

Alter said that during a dinner meeting with County Commissioner Mark H. Guns to discuss Bainbridge, Guns paid for his own dinner.

The ethics probe comes at a time when the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development is already looking at the Bainbridge Development Corp. with an eye toward relieving it of its responsibility for overseeing the property.

The BDC is a quasi-public agency established by the General Assembly in 1999 to oversee the development of Bainbridge.

Asked whether the state was looking at taking the oversight role for Bainbridge from the BDC, Aris Melissaratos, secretary of business and economic development, responded: "No formal decision has been made yet."

Melissaratos said he did not know whether he had the authority to take the development of Bainbridge from the BDC but that he would be checking the legislative process to find out.

"If the board proves to be dysfunctional, we may have to take action," he said. "It will be something I talk to the governor about."

Melissaratos said Bainbridge is a large and important piece of property that should be available to development quickly to bring in companies and new jobs.

"We need to make the best economic development decisions for the region and the state," he added.

Melissaratos was afforded the chance to see for himself last week the infighting among BDC board members that, at least one director says, has rendered the board dysfunctional.

BDC infighting

It came near the end of a meeting at Cecil Community College on Monday night when BDC directors voted to postpone a presentation by the Manekin team of its new proposal for the development of Bainbridge.

W. Paul Gilbert, director of the Cecil County Office of Economic Development and a BDC director, made the motion to delay the Manekin presentation until tomorrow night.

He said that he learned 15 minutes before the meeting that another developer, Kinsley Properties of York, Pa., was to make its pitch for developing the property tomorrow.

Gilbert said Kinsley would benefit from having advanced knowledge of the Manekin team's plan.

The nine-member BDC board seems to be split between the five members who support the Manekin team and the four other directors who want to hear from other developers.

There has been friction between the two segments in recent weeks.

At one point during Monday's meeting, board member Donald Poist expressed his frustration with the majority members of the board who, he feels, are pushing the Manekin agenda. "Bully, bully, bully, that's what you've tried to do with this process from the start," he exclaimed while pointing his finger at the other board members.

He accused the majority of holding the others hostage with a "do it my way, come hell or high water" approach to discussions.

There was speculation before the meeting that majority directors would move to take control of the process and vote the Manekin proposal in without hearing from other developers.

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