When Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler arrived at a house party of teenagers in June, he pushed through the crowd, past youngsters dancing on a table and a smattering of red plastic cups. One of the revelers snapped a photo.
As the night wore on, teens at the South Bethany rental home posted tweets, photos and videos of a bash labeled the "eviction party" for its intensity — a celebration where underage participants later confirmed many were drinking alcohol.
Gansler, a Democrat who is running for governor, said this week that he stopped by the Delaware beach house to talk briefly with his teenage son and then left. He said he does not remember whether he saw anyone drinking. But even if he had, Gansler said, it was not his responsibility as a parent or a high-ranking law enforcement official to intervene.
"Assume for purposes of discussion that there was widespread drinking at this party," Gansler said. "How is that relevant to me? … The question is, do I have any moral authority over other people's children at beach week in another state? I say no."
Advocates against substance abuse and underage drinking disagreed, saying adults shouldn't look the other way.
"It's totally inappropriate for an adult, especially for an elected official whose job is to uphold the laws of the state or any state," said Michael Gimbel, an independent consultant and the former alcohol abuse prevention official for Baltimore County.
"For any parent to do this is irresponsible. But for an attorney general who fought for these laws on the books is even worse," he said.
Gansler has publicly advocated against underage drinking, appearing less than a year ago in a video for the Century Council, a nonprofit that works to combat both teen drinking and drunken driving.
"Parents, you're the leading influence on your teen's decision not to drink," Gansler said in a video filmed as part of the organization's "Ask, Listen, Learn" initiative to persuade parents to talk to middle-school children about drinking. "It's never too early to talk with your kids about smart ways to say no."
Century Council's CEO and president Ralph Blackman, upon learning that Gansler had been at such a party, said, "Let me pick myself up off the floor here."
Blackman added that he couldn't judge what Gansler should have done while briefly stopping by a party. But he said that as a parent, he would hope to hold himself to a standard high enough to "not only set a good example and be a good role model for my own kid, but for the wider group of kids who all influence each other."
"You can agree, you can disagree with the legal age," Blackman said. But by looking the other way, "you are somehow suggesting that it is OK to break the law. It's part of the value systems that go into young people's decision making."
Gansler, in a two-hour interview Tuesday about senior week and the June 13 party, said, "My responsibility is only to my child. … Everybody has their own moral compass. Mine is to raise my own child." He said firmly that his son was not drinking.
Gansler had attended a Maryland State Bar Association event in Ocean City earlier that evening. During his brief stay at the teens' party, he was captured in both a video and a photo posted online. He did not dispute the authenticity of those images.
He said he was at the party only for a few minutes to discuss with his newly graduated son when they would leave Delaware the next morning for a college event in Pennsylvania. Of senior week, he said, "For better or worse, the reality is some kids drink alcohol while they're there."
The two-term attorney general and former Montgomery County state's attorney said he had no more responsibility to shut down a party if he saw drinking than to stop teenagers walking down the street with beer cans in hand or investigate tailgate parties.
"Was I supposed to serve as the police officer?" Gansler asked. "No."
Gansler was part of a group of parents who paid for a weeklong stay at a six-bedroom beach house after their sons' graduation from the private Landon School in Bethesda.
The parents arranged for two fathers to serve as chaperones each night, paid for food and negotiated rules that forbade the boys from driving, having girls behind closed bedroom doors or drinking "hard alcohol," according a copy of the rules and planning documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun. The list of prohibitions did not mention drinking beer or wine.
Gansler said that while he didn't write the rules, he attended a meeting where parents discussed them and was one of two adults who explained them to the dozen boys.
"If anything bad happened, if the kids violated the rules, they'd be sent home," Gansler said. "My guess is ... that if someone drank beer, that would not be an offense for which the chaperones would want to send somebody home."
Delaware law, like Maryland's, does not distinguish among types of alcohol in its broad prohibition against underage drinking. In both states, the legal drinking age is 21.
It is legal for parents to allow their own children to drink at home.
In several photos posted online by people at the party, older adults can be seen standing in the background. In videos and photos, young people, both men and women, are dancing on a bar and on a table. In one video, a bucket of clear liquid is poured from the balcony onto dancers below. It's unclear how many teens were drinking.
Some of the videos have since been removed from social media.
"I don't remember much, but it was one of the best parties I've been to, hands down," said one attendee who spoke to The Baltimore Sun this week under the condition of anonymity because some engaged in underage drinking.
Two days after the party, however, the house was in bad shape. Julie Barnes, who has for years cleaned the home after renters, said she arrived on June 15 to find the wooden floors rippled from moisture damage, dents that appeared to be made from high heels on the bar and pool table, and floors sticky from what smelled like beer. According to minutes of a South Bethany Town Council meeting where the vandalism was discussed, the house sustained about $50,000 worth of damage.
Police who investigated did not place blame on the Landon group and classified the damage as likely the result of a burglary that occurred sometime between Friday evening and Saturday when Barnes arrived to clean. The Landon group turned in their keys Friday afternoon, parents said.
A parent who chaperoned the night of the party but would not discuss whether there was drinking said he helped the boys clean up the next morning. He said they left the house in good shape. Another parent said a representative of the realty company ResortQuest called afterward to say the house was fine and minor damage would be covered by the security deposit. The parents asked not to be identified to protect their children's privacy. Representatives from ResortQuest did not respond to a request for comment.
Gansler said the parents assume that someone broke in and trashed the house after the boys checked out.
"Apparently, the night before, the parents who were chaperoning it kicked kids out" because it was getting too crowded, Gansler said. "The thought was [the damage] was so malicious that they were trying to get revenge or back at the parents who were chaperoning for kicking them out."
The home's owner, Timothy Dickson, lives in Virginia and said he thought he and his wife were renting to several families vacationing together, not to a dozen recent high school graduates. He said they were dismayed by the teens' behavior at their beach house as displayed on social media.
Baltimore Sun community coordinator Michael Gold contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun