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The Baltimore Sun

Local GOP leader shines light on redistricting appointee's tax evasion

At about 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 21, Steve Kolbe sat down in front of his computer screen to do a little homework.

As chair of the Baltimore County Republican Party, Kolbe was planning to testify the following day before the Governor's Redistricting Advisory Committee that he thinks its redistricting plan is an "abomination" designed to keep Democratic incumbents in office, he said.

Before testifying, however, he wanted to study up on the committee members themselves.

"I think it's a sign of respect," he said.

Kolbe was familiar with most of the five committee members — including Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch — but not with member Richard Stewart, the owner of Montgomery Mechanical Services and a member of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

Kolbe put Stewart's name into Google's search engine, he said, and was shocked when the first result was a link to the Department of Justice's website, where a release had been posted Dec. 15 saying Stewart had pleaded guilty to charges of failing to pay millions in taxes through his company, which installs plumbing, heating and air conditioning in commercial buildings and has offices in Baltimore and Capital Heights.

The release said Stewart had failed to "collect, truthfully account for and pay over" almost $4 million in employment taxes between 2003 and 2008, owed restitution to the IRS in excess of $5 million, and faces up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

"I thought, 'This can't be the same guy,' " Kolbe said.

When he poked around the Internet a bit more and found it was the same guy, Kolbe said his first thought was, "Well, I'm not going to go down and testify before a crooked commission."

His second thought was to spread the word.

He called a few reporters, called the Maryland Republican Party, where he spoke with executive director David Ferguson, and then sent out an email to his group's 150-person press mailing list.

The next morning, a full week after Stewart's plea agreement was announced by the Department of Justice, The Baltimore Sun posted a story about the charges and the plea agreement online, as did other media outlets.

The news had officially broken, in part because of Kolbe.

O'Malley addresses issue

Later that day, just before the scheduled committee hearing, Gov. Martin O'Malley addressed the issue for the first time, telling reporters that Stewart had never told him about the charges, and that he was disappointed by them. He also said the committee's work had been completed, but that Stewart would have to step down from the Stadium Authority immediately.

A spokesperson for O'Malley said the governor first learned of the charges on Wednesday from Matt Gallagher, his chief of staff.

According to Ferguson, that timeline is "bologna."

Ferguson said he has been looking into the charges since Dec. 2, the day after he started with the state GOP, and that sources in Annapolis had told him the governor was well aware of the charges. Ferguson would not say who those sources were.

"I'd rather not discuss our internal strategy and how we know things, because just like reporters we have to keep our sources and our information confidential," Ferguson said. "But O'Malley knew about it and has refused to act."

Ignorance isn't an excuse for O'Malley even if he truly didn't know of the charges until Wednesday, Ferguson said.

"Governor O'Malley has been completely negligent on the situation," Ferguson said. "I mean, he's falling asleep on the job."

Kolbe expressed similar thoughts.

"The most salient point I see here is that this is a conviction. That means this is not a new issue, because you don't go from zero to conviction on a four million dollar tax fraud case in a few days, weeks, or even months," Kolbe wrote in an email. "So why would the Governor appoint a criminal to redraw (an) electoral map, whose actions will touch the lives of all Marylanders for the next ten years?"

Asked about Ferguson's claim the governor knew about the charges, Raquel Guillory, O'Malley's spokesperson, wrote in an email that Ferguson is "100 percent wrong and has REALLY bad sources."

On Ferguson's statement that ignorance on the issue on the part of the governor is not a good excuse, Guillory wrote, "(The) Governor is appalled that Mr. Stewart did not disclose this. Stewart was vetted by staff here and it never came up. If it was so public, why didn't Ferguson come out with it earlier?"

Kolbe: 'doing my job'

Ferguson said he had been waiting to make the charges more public, and that doing so just prior to Thursday's meeting seemed like an appropriate time to do so, especially considering Kolbe had already shared the news with reporters and others.

Kolbe said his involvement in breaking the news speaks well to the role of the Republican Party in Maryland, a heavily Democratic state.

"Job number one for any minority party, whether it's Democrat, Republican or otherwise, throughout the entire world, is accountability. It's my duty to hold the majority party accountable. I was doing my job," Kolbe said. "And that's why the Republican party, although it's a minority, has a tremendous amount of relevance throughout the state of Maryland. We are in many ways the only sheriff in town."

Del. Steve DeBoy, a Halethorpe Democrat, said Stewart should have disclosed the information to the governor and recused himself from sitting on the redistricting committee, and that had the governor known, Stewart would have been quickly removed from the committee.

But DeBoy said he fails to see how Stewart's tax issues relate to or diminish the integrity of the redistricting plan, as Ferguson and Kolbe claim.

"I think they're two separate issues," DeBoy said. "He's got his own issues, and he's got to deal with those on his own. He's facing jail time. But I don't see a correlation between that and what he did on the redistricting panel."

Multiple other Baltimore County elected officials, both Republicans and Democrats, did not return requests for comment on the Stewart's plea agreement.

Stewart is expected to be sentenced in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt on April 23, according to the Department of Justice's release.

A Department of Justice spokesperson would not answer questions on when the investigation began or whether criminal investigators were ever in touch with O'Malley or anyone at the Stadium Authority about the charges.

A spokesperson for the IRS Criminal Investigation unit, which investigated Stewart, did not return a call requesting information on the case.

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