Expense account probe may be issue in election

But challengers' focus on investigation unlikely to impact council race

April 05, 2004|By Tom Pelton and Doug Donovan | Tom Pelton and Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Dr. Terrence Fitzgerald, a Green Party candidate for the City Council running in the Nov. 2 election, said he plans to talk about the recent dust-up over the council's expense accounts as he campaigns for a seat representing Northwest Baltimore.

"I will bring it up as an example of the kind of sloppiness and poor accountability that goes along with more than 60 years of one-party rule," said Fitzgerald, a first-time candidate and physician from Mount Washington who works as medical director of an addiction treatment center.

Over the objections of some council members, Mayor Martin O'Malley canceled the council's unusual, almost $100,000 expense account system last week after The Sun revealed that it might violate federal tax laws. U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio is investigating the accounts as part of a broad look at the council's finances and hiring.

Most of Baltimore's 19 council members were given $5,000 a year in cash advances for incidental business expenses but not required to turn in receipts, and they were allowed to pocket extra money they didn't need for council business.

Although they are long shots, many of the eight Green Party and 11 Republican challengers facing the incumbent Democratic City Council members say they want to remind voters that they have a choice in the November election.

But Arthur Murphy, a political consultant in the city for more than three decades, predicted that the federal investigation - even if it results in indictments - would have no impact on the council, which has been solidly Democratic since the 1930s.

"Let's say the entire City Council is indicted. Who is going to take advantage of it? Nobody. There's nobody out there ready to make a viable run," said Murphy, who has worked for several Democratic council members.

There's nothing in the city charter that would prohibit an indicted council member from being re-elected and serving while he or she awaits trial. But a conviction would require him or her to step down, said City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr.

Democratic voters in the Sept. 9 primary chose to renominate almost all of the incumbent City Council members. The city has 236,299 registered Democrats, compared with 27,489 Republicans and 1,241 members of the Green Party.

The last non-Democrat to serve on the council was Daniel Ellison, a Republican elected in 1939.

Patrick Gonzales, president of Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies of Annapolis, a political polling firm, said that recent news articles questioning the council's sloppy use of expense accounts and describing a months-long federal investigation into the council's hiring of relatives and acceptance of gifts brought up important questions.

"But will it have a political impact? A race won by a Democrat, 80 percent to 20 percent, might become a race won by a Democrat, 75 percent to 25 percent," Gonzales said.

City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, who will face Fitzgerald and Republican Elliott Cahan in the general election, is called by some the "dean" of the council, having served 27 years, longer than any other member.

Spector said that the federal investigation appears to be frivolous, and that The Sun's articles about the expense accounts were unnecessarily negative, because the council had maintained the accounts for decades.

"Do I think this will hurt our chances to get re-elected? Personally, I have the benefit of being long serving, and I'm confident that the people in my district know me and know that I have worked hard for them," Spector said.

While she said her name is respected in Northwest Baltimore, she said her opponents have no reputation or track record. "Nobody knows them," she said.

Joe Collins Jr., 34, owner of an auto mechanic shop who is running as a Republican for the council's 10th District in Southwest Baltimore, said he plans to talk to voters about the council's seemingly lax attitude toward ethics.

"We're finding slush funds here, slush funds there," said Collins, a first-time candidate for office. "We're finding no accountability."

Collins said he would push to give the city's ethics board more power to keep council members and city employees in check with strong ethics regulations.

"If you hear the people on the street, people are really tired of the shenanigans" of the council, Collins said. "A lot of people are fed up with it."

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