No questions asked

July 09, 2004

WHAT DO YOU CALL three people who -- without so much as asking a question -- shovel tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to a nonprofit with an unusually well-paid CEO, numerous insider business deals and sloppy accounting? Most people would call them irresponsible.

In Maryland, we call them the Board of Public Works.

Apparently, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp have limited curiosity about the finances of The Chimes Inc., the Baltimore charity with some pretty strained financial credibility. They unanimously approved a $111 million airport cleaning contract this week without asking a single question of Terry Allen Perl, Chimes' CEO.

This stunning level of disinterest came just a few days after The Sun's Jay Hancock reported that Mr. Perl earned $686,506 in fiscal 2002 for his work at the Chimes, a mere $144,405 more than the charity previously reported to this newspaper -- and more than twice as much as the Chimes originally told the Internal Revenue Service.

Nor did public works board members have much to say about the fact that at least four Chimes executives make more than $200,000 a year. Or that at least five members of the Chimes' governing board owned or worked for companies that did business with the charity. Apparently, conflicts of interest don't interest the Board of Public Works.

Perhaps financial practices at the Chimes have changed. Certainly, giving people with disabilities a chance to earn a living cleaning Baltimore-Washington International Airport's terminal building is a good idea. But haven't enough questions been raised about the organization to merit a more skeptical review?

It's particularly disappointing that Mr. Schaefer, who was elected as the state's chief tax collector, demonstrates so little vigilance over matters of state finance. Granted, he couldn't remain silent. He criticized this newspaper for revealing unflattering information about the charity.

Mr. Schaefer seems to have a lot to say at the Board of Public Works that has limited relevance. He's spoken out against foreign-born fast-food clerks and against Martin O'Malley for criticizing the Bush administration. The tirades have grown tiresome and -- as the mayor noted -- cheapen the 82-year-old politician's legacy.

Others have shown a little more curiosity about the Chimes: most notably, the IRS and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley. The Iowa Republican called the recent Chimes revelations "troubling." We agree. Now the question is why doesn't the Board of Public Works find them troubling, too?

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