Want to make a federal case out of free passes to arena?

Michael Olesker

WHEN THE subpoena from the U.S. attorney's office arrived this week, City Councilwoman Lois Garey put the thing aside without opening it. She wanted to play with her grandchildren instead. This is known as an act of mental health.

Also, it is a lesson in perspective for the entire City Council of Baltimore, 17 of whose members have acknowledged being hit with similar subpoenas and informed that their activities are under federal investigation. Among prosecutors' areas of interest? Well, there has been much talk of free tickets to 1st Mariner Arena.

Wow.

For the same U.S. attorney's office that once went after vice presidents and county executives who took big money under the table, we now add the important business of passes to indoor soccer games and the subsequent attempt to make a federal case out of it.

Remember that expression: "You want to make a federal case out of it?" It used to be said with a sneer on the lips. It meant: You're trying to make something important out of this nonsense?

For now, in her East Baltimore home, we had Councilwoman Garey putting aside the grandchildren for a few moments. She stood in her kitchen and finally opened the envelope with the subpoena and read it aloud. She seemed utterly bewildered.

"They want my records," she said. "'Statement of service fees,' it says. I don't know what the hell that is. They should put this in English, just for starters. I guess they think they're dealing with people who have expensive lawyers." Now she read some more. "'Documents to be produced: all gifts of over $100 in the last five years.'"

She thought about this for a long moment.

"None that I'm aware of," she said, "unless they're including my mother-in-law. Are gifts from mothers-in-law considered crimes now? Ooh, this makes me crazy." She rattled the papers in her hand.

"They want to know about the 1st Mariner Arena pass, which I never used," she said. "I loaned it to the Highlandtown Little League. They want all documents relating to Ed Hale, or to 1st Mariner, or to specific legislation involving him. They want to know if money he contributed to my campaign affected how I voted. Are they kidding? He had a good product, he came to council hearings, and he didn't ask for any tax breaks. What a concept! Do something for your community and go to jail!"

Nobody is quite talking about jail yet - but everybody is talking about Hale. He is president of 1st Mariner Bank, and the previously named Baltimore Arena that now bears the name (and controversial billboards) of his bank.

That complimentary arena tickets went to council members, there seems no dispute. That Hale had anything to do with it, there is plenty of dispute. He bought the naming rights to the arena - not control of tickets. He insists that he had nothing to do with dispersing any of them.

Of course, complimentary tickets are just a small symbol of a larger implication - which is that Hale bought off the council. Bought them off by contributing money to their election campaigns, bought them off by giving them personal bank loans, bought them off by taking them to dinner and shmoozing them - in exchange for which, it is inferred, the council approved arena billboards (by a 17-to-1 vote), and unanimously approved a $95 million project at Boston and Clinton streets.

To which Councilwoman Garey, delighted by plans to finally brighten a longtime undernourished area, later introduced legislation to expand the project by 16 acres.

Around such practices, we are informed, the U.S. attorney's offices launches its investigation. To which Hale, not wishing to duck a fight, sat in his office this week and formally declared:

"[Bleep-bleep], all of it."

"You want to talk about money, let's talk about money," he said. "Do I contribute to council candidates? Of course. It's all public record. But beyond that, nothing. I've never had any politician shake me down, and I've never asked for any special breaks. I've never gotten any money from the city, and never received any. Has my bank given council members financial breaks? Hell, we have no loans to any council people. None. They don't even have checking accounts here - and I'm a local bank."

There is also, Hale says, no city money at 1st Mariner. To Hale, this is a municipal insult. He has made a considerable fortune in his various business ventures - banking, trucking, shipping - but, unlike many business people, has made a point of staying rooted in the city.

Thus, he says, eight days after the council approved the arena billboards in April, Hale invited them all to Fleming's Prime Steakhouse for dinner. It cost $1,413. What did he talk about? The city of Baltimore putting some of its money into a hometown bank. How successful was it? According to Hale, with all his alleged political muscle, his bank still has no city funds.

"I asked them, 'What are the methods for determining these things? And isn't it fair for a local bank to get some of it?' Is that what these guys" - the U.S. attorney's office - "think is a crime? Do they? I can only guess."

So are council members such as Lois Garey. Standing in her kitchen, she put down the subpoena and went back to playing with her grandchildren.

"You know something?" she said. "We come into this world with a good name. You want to go out of it with one. And they try to give you a stain like this."
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