Agency head tied to firm that won deal to lay turf

Arundel official made campaign donation

June 17, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun Reporter

The head of the Anne Arundel County agency that approved an $11 million contract to install artificial turf at county high schools contributed to the 2006 political campaign of the winning company's vice president, according to campaign finance records and interviews.

Fred Schram, the county's director of central services, bought a $200 ticket to attend the sole fundraiser for Sunny Acres Landscaping official Les Belcher III, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the General Assembly.

Though the Davidsonville-based company was the lowest bidder in a sealed process this spring, some County Council members have expressed concern about whether it was qualified to receive the contract. On May 30, the council ordered an audit of the contract and froze funding for the project. Last night, the council also gave the auditor the authority to hire an attorney and a forensic computer specialist to assist in the review.

Belcher's wife, Debbie, sits on the Anne Arundel County Republican Central Committee, and her brother is Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., a Glen Burnie Republican. An aide to County Executive John R. Leopold is also on the central committee.

Schram plays golf with Les Belcher Jr., the president of Sunny Acres and a fellow member of the Old South Country Club, a prestigious club that boasts a membership roster of powerful and well-connected players in state politics and business.

Schram has said that the sealed bidding process was fair and "at arm's length" from politics. Schram added in an interview this week that his personal life is separate from county work, and that he knows many people throughout the business community.

"When you're in business in this county, you're going to know a lot of folks. ... What I do outside of working hours, that's my business," Schram said, adding that questions are being raised for political reasons or by jilted bidders. "You're going to have disgruntled people. But the fact is, it was awarded on the criteria established on the bid specs, not who I knew or anything else."

Betsy Dawson, the executive director of the Anne Arundel ethics commission, said there was no rule requiring county employees to disclose personal relationships unless the employee stands to benefit financially. Under a law passed by the County Council that goes into effect July 1, contractors - but not county officials - will be required to disclose personal and political ties.

Disclosure

"However, if an employee were to ask if that sort of thing should be disclosed, the ethics commission would say disclosure is always best," Dawson said.

Schram said he has been "very involved" with the project, but not the aspects handled by the purchasing department, whose employees report to him.

A former chief of staff to Democratic County Executive Janet S. Owens, Schram has donated to 16 candidates since 2002, according to campaign finance records. The donation to Belcher was one of three that he has made to Republican candidates.

Politics dismissed

In an interview last month with The Sun, Schram said he was generally aware of Les Belcher III's politics but said they were irrelevant.

"I think Les Belcher III ran for delegate, and I think I had read his wife was on the central committee," he said. "That's - it's not a factor in this. I think you just need to look at the fact that this was a sealed-bid process and was issued to the lowest responsible bidder. Politics doesn't come into that."

"I think that the way to look at it is, 'Do they have ties to the county?' and I don't see that as a tie to Anne Arundel County."

Les Belcher III referred questions to his father but confirmed that Schram attended his fundraiser March 25, 2006. Last month, he told The Sun: "To the best of my knowledge, the powers in the hierarchy of the county didn't even know I was associated with Sunny Acres. Whether they did or not is not known to me."

Sunny Acres has never before installed artificial turf. After it had received approval, the company changed the type of turf it planned to install and cut ties with an experienced subcontractor that had guided it throughout the process. It later linked up with another experienced company.

Council acts

On May 29, the County Council delayed a vote on Leopold's budget for hours as it crafted a last-minute amendment that cut off funding to the turf project and instructed the county auditor to review the approval process.

All six council members present voted in favor of the amendment. They have declined to comment pending the outcome of the investigation.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Steven Stanek contributed to this article.

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