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Senators rebuke Franchot, who strikes right back

By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

4:29 PM EST, February 22, 2013

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Two senators who sit on the committee that oversees the state
budget have issued a harsh rebuke to Comptroller Peter Franchot, accusing Maryland’s chief tax collector of misusing taxpayers’ money to travel around the state giving out “questionably invented awards” – a charge Franchot rejected.

Sen. Nancy King, a Montgomery County Democrat, and Sen. David
Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican, sent Franchot a letter this week
charging that the four categories of awards created by the Comptroller’s Office since 2010 “are completely unrelated” to the duties of his office.

“We see no reason why any of your state duties or responsibilities
justified the taxpayer-financed expense of paying for a driver, security, gas, car mileage or the manufacture and purchase of questionably invented awards,” the senators said. Both are members of the Budget & Taxation Committee.

Franchot struck back Friday with equal vigor, insisting that presenting the awards was a legitimate function of his elective office. The comptroller, who offended some of the state’s most powerful elected officials
with his appearances in ads opposing a casino expansion referendum question that passed last year, suggested the letter was retaliation for his role.

“It is glaringly obvious that this letter is motivated not by honest fiscal stewardship, but by lingering resentment over some of the positions that I have taken, and some of the statements that I have made, as an
independently-elected Comptroller,” Franchot wrote. He said the issue was not raised by the legislature’s professional staff and noted that his agency requested a lower budget this year than last -- in part because of travel savings.

The exchange is one in a series of clashes between the comptroller, a Democrat who has frequently strayed from party orthodoxy, and
his former colleagues in the General Assembly. Among other things, Franchot faces the threat of a bill that would strip many of the duties of his office and hand them to another agency.

The honors the senators questioned are known as the Schaefer
Helping People Award, the Silver Hammer Award, the Doing Better With Less Award and the Golden Apple Award. The Comptroller’s Office
regularly issues news releases announcing the Franchot will travel to various locations to present such awards.

The Schaefer Award is named after the late William Donald
Schaefer, the onetime Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor whom Franchot unseated as comptroller in 2006. According to the Comptroller’s Office, it is given to people and organizations that help improve their communities, solve citizens’ problems and help vulnerable individuals.

The Better With Less award recognizes businesses and nonprofits
that succeed in a bad economy through “efficiency and innovation.” The Golden Apple Award is for school volunteers, and the Silver Hammer Award is for “superior school maintenance.”

The senators wrote that they were “troubled” by what they called
the “misleading impression” given to recipients that the awards are broadly endorsed by the state when they are “something solely manufactured and endorsed by you.”

“No other members of the Board of Public Works or prior comptrollers have engaged in this kind of behavior connected to their roles as
members of the board or serving as comptroller,” they said. The senators added the complaint that Franchot was spending too much time away from his office.

Franchot said the complaint he was misleading people “unworthy of
a response” and defended his travel around the state, saying he has “the right and the responsibility to visit communities across our state.”

“The insinuation that I can only ‘carry out the actual job and
responsibilities’ of this statewide office by sequestering myself in Annapolis – which, experience has shown, means soliciting the perspective of other elected officials in hallways and back rooms, or joining lawmakers for the usual round of evening receptions that are commonplace on State Circle – personifies the sense of disconnected arrogance that has alienated far too many people from government,” Franchot replied.

King and Brinkley demanded that Franchot turn over his travel schedule and information on the costs of making, publicizing and presenting the awards.

Franchot said he would provide that information and added an estimate that the production of the awards was just over $5,000 – “or for easy reference, a fraction of what it costs the taxpayers of Maryland to house a lawmaker in Annapolis for the 90-day session.”