Councilman Pleads Guilty

Baltimore County's Oliver Faces Fine, Probation For Misuse Of Campaign Funds

July 29, 2009|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,nick.madigan@baltsun.com

Baltimore County Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver pleaded guilty Tuesday to pocketing $2,300 donated to his political campaign, but he did not have to account for an additional $15,000 that prosecutors say he mishandled.

As part of a plea deal, the 64-year-old Randallstown Democrat agreed to pay a $2,500 fine and to serve 50 hours of community service observing the work of an accountant who is an expert in the proper use of campaign accounts.

He also must serve a six-month period of probation, which will be supervised until he pays the fine and court costs.

"I did make a mistake," Oliver told Baltimore County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger. "There was no criminal intent. It won't happen again. I have the accounting systems in place."

Oliver pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges of writing checks to himself from his campaign - one for $2,000 to pay for what he later said was a "family emergency," the other for $300. Under the plea arrangement, six other charges were dropped, including some related to the other $15,000.

When he was indicted in January, Oliver - a former bank lender who has an MBA degree in finance and no prior criminal record - faced 15 years in prison for each of two felony theft charges and a year for each misdemeanor count, as well as fines of $25,000 for each of the eight counts.

At the conclusion of Tuesday's hearing, Oliver wiped tears from his eyes while an attorney patted him on the back. A few minutes later, as he left the courtroom, Oliver refused to speak with reporters.

In 2002, Oliver became the first African-American elected to the council. He is in his second term on the seven-member panel, and attended a council workshop Tuesday afternoon, but neither he nor his colleagues said anything about his sentencing.

He would have been forced to resign had he been convicted of any charge that called for jail time, even if he had not been sentenced to jail. The settlement announced Tuesday was structured as a probation before judgment, meaning that Oliver did not have to step down.

"These actions were not related to his public duties and responsibilities as a county councilman," Tamara M. Gustave, an assistant state prosecutor, told the judge - a crucial point in preserving Oliver's seat.

"It's a fair outcome," said Gustave's boss, State Prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh, who was present at the sentencing. "It's appropriate."

Under Maryland law, a person running for office may not have possession of his campaign's checkbook, and must provide receipts for any expense reimbursements he might seek. Prosecutors looked into as many as 40 reimbursements sought by Oliver that appeared to be duplicate payments, according to articles by Patuxent Publishing, which first uncovered the problems with Oliver's financial dealings. He had left his bank job at about the time of the questionable transactions. Oliver has also gotten into trouble with the state Board of Elections for failing to file campaign finance reports on time.

During the hearing, Oliver's lead attorney, Charles G. Byrd Jr., gave the judge a packet of letters supporting the councilman, including some written by his colleagues on the panel. One of them, T. Bryan McIntire, the panel's elder statesman and its sole Republican, attended the hearing.

Chris Cavey, head of the county's Republican Central Committee, was dismissive of the sentence given Oliver, especially its provision that he shadow an accountant versed in campaign finance law.

"He didn't learn that stuff when he got an MBA?" Cavey asked. "I know people who can learn that in an hour. It's not complex. Anyone who has an MBA in finance knows that you need to get receipts, you need to be auditable, and you need to be accountable."

Cavey said he was unhappy that Oliver will continue to sit on the council, "making decisions as to how my tax dollars are being spent."

Ella White Campbell, executive director of the Liberty Road Community Council in Randallstown, said Oliver's guilty pleas are "going to affect his effectiveness on the council" and could lead to his defeat if he runs again for office next year.

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