IssuesEric T., Bel Air: Mr. Nitkin, in your Feb. 13, 2006, Q&A you briefly summarize The Sun's aggressive reporting on an aborted state land sale to a politicallyconnected contractor (at the same price as the state initially paid). A fewweeks ago, according to the Baltimore Business Journal and WBAL, "BarcodingInc." purchased a city-owned building for $500,000 less than the city paidfor it six years ago, and $750,000 less than its most-recent appraised value.
Now, there are some signs that the real estate market is slowing down, butsomething tells me that selling any property at 25 percent of value in this marketis, at a minimum, incompetent. A search of the state political contributionsdatabase shows that a "Jay Steinmetz," which happens to be the same name asthe CEO of Barcoding Inc., donated thousands of dollars to "Friends of [Baltimore Mayor] Martin O'Malley" over the last two-plus years.
Coincidentally (or not?), the Baltimore Development Corp. had been trying to strike a deal with Barcoding for about three years. Mr. Steinmetz was quoted as saying there was "huge risk"involved on their part because the building is in need of major renovations.Regardless of whether that's true or not, it's fairly certain that one oftwo things happened here ... either the city neglected the property and inturn lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity, or the business gotone incredible sweetheart deal after making big donations to O'Malley.
Has The Sun done any aggressive investigative reporting on this story? Idon't recall seeing any major articles. Did I miss the big story, or didthose other news outfits get the facts wrong?
Nitkin: Eric, I don't yet know who, if anyone, on our staff is looking intoor has looked into this real estate transaction. We haven't written much on Barcoding Inc. I found a 2005 reference to the company beingranked 11th on the Inner City 100, a listing of the 100 fastest-growingcompanies in urban areas, as compiled by the nonprofit Initiative for aCompetitive Inner City and Inc. magazine.
After receiving your question, I checked the state campaign finance database. You are correct: there is a Jay Steinmetz who contributed $4,400 to O'Malley between 2001 and2005. It sounds like the transaction you describe is worth looking at. I'llmake sure that happens within the paper. Thanks.
Frank Booth, Baltimore: I have a follow-up question to the one I asked a couple of weeks ago about the political shenanigans behind the Maryland Department of Planning move. While Jill Rosen's article was informative on the subject, I don't understand how such blatant political manipulation of running a government can be legal.
From what I hear of [the] Senate hearing on the move, it seems to me that the likes of Sen. [Ulysses] Currie should be in jail. Here is the chairman of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, and he is supporting wasting $3.2 million on an unnecessary move of a state agency that would then cost $1 million a year thereafter for rent. The agency onlypays $10,000 per year for rent now. The only reason for the move is thesymbolism of a state agency in Currie's district. What gives?
Nitkin: Frank, as Rosen reported, about 80 percent of state agencyheadquarters are in Baltimore, and there are none in Montgomery and PrinceGeorge's counties -- the two most populous in the state. I recently had adiscussion with a leading state delegate from Prince George's County, who,unprompted, expressed to me her strong desire -- for equity reasons -- to havethe state planning department move to her county. She could not understandthe opposition from the Baltimore area.
There appears to be a strong sentiment in Prince George's that politicians come to the county for votes during elections, and then do little to help afterward -- that deeds do notfollow words. It does appear as if moving the agency will be a costlyproposition, and legislative analysts expressed grave concerns with both theexpense and the proposal to provide "retention bonuses" for workers, orpayments for Baltimore-area employees to keep them working for the state ifand when the department does move. I can't say whether the move is a goodidea, but I can say that the concerns you are raising are being raised bymany others.
Jim Mitchell, Essex: Current language in the Maryland critical [Chesapeake] Bayarea laws only recommends a 300-foot setback for construction near tidalwetlands. Research from John's Hopkins [University] recommends 1,000 feet. Local jurisdiction[s] continually waive the 300-foot buffer for developers and allow much closer construction. It has been rumored, via legislative changes, [that] the Critical Area Commission wants to make the 300-foot setback mandatory. Can you confirm this?
Nitkin: Jim, I'm afraid I can't confirm this without doing some research,which I have not had a chance to do. I'll try to get the answer and get backto you.
Charles Shubow, Owings Mills: Now that both Ireland and England have bannedsmoking in bars and restaurants, do you support the nonsmokers of Maryland(85 percent of the population) in banning smoking in bars and restaurants toprotect workers?
Nitkin: That's an interesting way to word the question, Charles. It reallydoesn't matter what I support. But last week, a bill to ban smoking in bars,restaurants and all other workplaces in Maryland was rejected by alegislative committee. It seems that despite what has happened in Ireland,England, New York and elsewhere, Maryland lawmakers are not ready to adopt asmoking ban for bars.
Victor Arca, Mount Airy: Who was the delegate who stated, "I read theBible ... " during his explanation of his vote to bring HB 48 (Maryland MarriageAmendment) to the floor for debate Feb 3? And who was the delegate who tried to stop him from speaking on this issue? They refused to journalize the session, and I reallywanted to know who these delegates were.
Nitkin: Victor, I was not in the House chambers for that debate, but after getting your question, I listened to the portion you are talking about. You can, too, if you have Internet access. Go to this link, and then select the House session for Feb. 3. I fast-forwarded to the part you are talking about.
The delegate who referenced the Bible, to my semi-trained but often faulty ear, sounds like he has an eastern Baltimore County or northern Anne Arundel County or Harford County accent. I'm not entirely sure who it is (Richard K. Impallaria? Patrick L. McDonough? Robert A. Costa? Perhaps someone could help me out with this.) I'm pretty sure that the lawmaker who interrupted (and whose interruption was waved off by [House Speaker Michael E.] Busch) was Del. Neil Quinter, a Howard County Democrat.
John Brohawn, Catonsville: I want to know if [U.S. Rep. Elijah E.] Cummings practices what he preaches on diversity. His constituency is 35 percent white. Is his staff the same? He won't answer; nor will his staff.
Nitkin: John, I will try to get the answer for you. Watch this space for a response.
Joe McMonagle, Baltimore: When will The Sun look at where the Baltimore City school money went to? I am surprised that it has faded away. As a resident of Baltimore, I am disturbed that you don't pursue the matter. Is it because you don't want to reveal the truth about city finances and what disarray they have been [in] for the past 10 to 15 years?
Nitkin: We do a lot of extensive reporting on city schools, and wrote quite a bit about the fiscal crisis of 2003-2004 that led to the city providing the school system with a $42 million bailout. In January, we had a front-page story about a legislative audit of city school finances that chronicled how dead employees were being paid, workers were allowed to use sick time when they hadn't earned it, and transportation companies were being paid even when they didn't pick up pupils.
The paper also covered legislative hearings to discuss the audit findings. Keeping track of how taxpayer money is being spent is one of our primary tasks as a newspaper.
Crime statisticsStuart, Baltimore: Will [O'Malley's] lying about the crime statistics in Maryland costhim the Democrat primary? The investigative reports by [WBAL's] Jayne Miller on TVhave been very eye-opening. It has definitely opened my eyes. I was also amazed to learn that Baltimore is now the second-most-dangerous major cityin the country. We even passed [Washington], D.C.
Nitkin: There's no evidence that the mayor has lied about crime statisticsin Baltimore. Critics have raised questions about whether it is fair tocompare audited and upwardly revised 1999 numbers to the 2005 or laterfigures, and Miller has raised questions through anecdotes about whether all crimes in Baltimore are being reported.
O'Malley ran for office saying he would bring the homicide number in Baltimore to below175, and he has not done so. He now claims that Baltimore has had thelargest drop in violent crime of any big city in America. As we've reported,if the violent crime drop were based on raw, unaudited 1999 numbers, thecity would have the sixth-largest drop in crime. The veracity and validity ofBaltimore crime statistics are certainly a current topic in the governor'srace.
Kelly Sanford, Cockeysville: [On] the scandal developing on crime statistics inBaltimore, didn't this all start with O'Malley's campaign in 1999 and hisaudit of the police department then, rather than news and television reportsnow?
Nitkin: We've reported that the mayor had the city's 1999 crime statisticsaudited. As a candidate for mayor, he claimed that crime was beingunderreported in Baltimore. The audit resulted in an upward revision of thefigures, meaning that the reductions since then are a greater percentagethan they would be as compared to the original, unaudited numbers.
The mayor says that the reporting since then is accurate, because the auditcreated higher standards for tabulating numbers. Critics say that to trulyjudge the city's crime figures, the latest numbers must be audited as well.
ElectionsKelly Sanford, Cockeysville: When are you going to ask the candidates forgovernor the tough questions? Such as: