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Some legislators playing favorites on scholarships Complaints bolster reform effort

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Dennison Paolino gets $1,200 a year in scholarship money from three state legislators in Anne Arundel County. Her father, Thomas J. Paolino, happens to be president of the county teachers union, which endorsed the three lawmakers in the last election.

Coincidence?

Her benefactors -- Sen. Philip C. Jimeno and Dels. W. Ray Huff and Charles W. Kolodziejski -- say yes.

Ms. Paolino, a junior at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is a good student from a middle-income family. She's just the kind of person many lawmakers say they try to help with their controversial $7 million scholarship program.

Still, even Delegate Huff admits the multiple awards "don't look good."

And these days appearances count, given the program's

scandal-tinged history and voters' heightened interest in how their tax dollars are being spent.

Critics say the General Assembly's scholarship program -- the only one of its kind in the nation -- is outdated political patronage that allows legislators to reward old friends and make new ones among their constituents.

While many lawmakers disagree, some say the public has already made up its mind. "The public perception is that this is a totally corrupt program that only benefits legislators," said Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel.

Such complaints have invigorated this year's effort to reform the 125-year-old program, in which legislators hand out the money with few rules and no oversight.

A bill to phase out the program swept through the House of Delegates Friday. The measure now goes to the less receptive Senate, where a committee will hear testimony on the issue tomorrow.

The Senate has the most to lose if it must turn over the money to a nonpolitical scholarship agency. The 47 senators each have $120,000 a year to dole out to grateful constituents in almost any way they see fit. The 141 delegates each have $10,000 to draw upon.

The legislative scholarships account for fully a fourth of the financial aid the state awards to Maryland college students. Nearly all of the rest is distributed by the State Scholarship Administration under a formula based on financial need.

Critics have found no shortage of problems with how some legislators have awarded the tax dollars over the years. News reports have documented cases in which lawmakers gave scholarships to their own children, relatives, wealthy constituents and offspring of campaign workers.

A review by The Sun of the current scholarship list revealed that some lawmakers are still giving money to people with connections.

Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski, D-Baltimore, gave an award to Dawn Raynor, a cousin of state elections board chief Gene Raynor, a well-known Baltimore political figure.

Sen. Larry Young, D-Baltimore, gave awards to two children of a loyal campaign worker who also serves on the committee that helps him pick his scholarship winners.

And Sen. William H. Amoss, D-Harford, gave $800 to the daughter of a longtime political supporter who volunteered on his campaign.

In all three cases, the legislators making the awards were well aware of the political connections. But each said the students needed the money.

Whether such students need the money or not, critics say these examples raise eyebrows since thousands of other needy students receive no financial aid from legislators or the state.

"The primary problem is who is giving the scholarships rather than who receives them," said Phil Andrews, executive director of the public interest advocacy group Common Cause, which has lobbied hard against the program. "Even if the recipients are needy, it's wrong for elected officials to determine who gets the awards."

The Sun's review also found that scores of students like Ms. Paolino are picking up awards from more than one legislator.

In one case, a young Democratic activist, M. Scott Bowling of Prince George's County, is receiving at least $1,400 in college scholarships from three legislators in two districts. His benefactors include a senator he does not support and a delegate he does -- both from his home district -- along with a delegate from a district where he has spent summers.

While some lawmakers say the political benefits are outweighed by having to say no to so many applicants, others admit the obvious.

"Make no bones about it," said Sen. Nathan C. Irby Jr., D-Baltimore. "If anyone says it's not a perk, they're lying."

The worst and the best

Perhaps Maria Bailey represents the worst and best of the program. Mrs. Bailey is a faithful campaign worker for Senator Young, and she volunteers on the committee that selects the students who receive the senator's scholarships.

The work paid off last year when her children, Damon and Christine, together received $1,200 in scholarships from the senator.

It sounds like a political payback. But, said Mr. Young, "there wasn't any doubt" that the Bailey family needed the aid. Mrs. Bailey has a modest income and her husband has had trouble holding a job because of injuries he suffered in Vietnam, Mr. Young said.

While the public focuses on the potential for political favors, legislators talk about all the good they are doing for constituents.

Many legislators say the State Scholarship Administration relies too heavily on a formula that does not take into account personal circumstances such as recent divorces, layoffs or medical expenses.

"It adds the human touch," said Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, D-Baltimore. "To say that the scholarship board can do it any better than I can, I don't buy it."

Some lawmakers, particularly those from the suburbs, say the scholarships are one of the few benefits left for the middle class.

In the current year, families earning $40,000 or more receive at least one-fourth, and perhaps half, of the legislative scholarships. The actual percentage cannot be determined because 31 percent of the aid is awarded to families whose income is listed in state records as "unknown."

Concern about politics

While many legislators reluctantly say the time has come to change the system, others say Maryland could become a national model.

"I can't imagine why the other states are not doing this," said Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, D-Prince George's. "I go to these national meetings and say, 'Why aren't you all doing this?' "

One reason other states may be reluctant to follow Maryland's example is the persistent concern that a politically connected family stands a better chance of winning an award.

Few senators exclude their political friends from consideration. Harford's Senator Amoss said if he were to do so, "It would be like saying, 'Don't work for me.' "

Mr. Amoss gave money to two daughters of Katherine Benton, a paid campaign worker and longtime staff aide.

A campaign volunteer for Mr. Amoss, Margie Woodward of Fallston, said her daughter is receiving needed aid from the senator to attend Washington College, a private college on the Eastern Shore. Her son also received an Amoss scholarship while in college.

"I think because he knew our children and our family's financial situation -- the fact that he knew us -- may have influenced him, but not the fact I helped on his campaigns," said Mrs. Woodward, a receptionist

and civic activist.

Lawmakers also have given awards to relatives. Former Sen. Theodore L. Bertier Jr. of Anne Arundel County gave a scholarship to his daughter, and the late Sen. Joseph Bonvegna of Baltimore awarded one to his son. "I think he needs the money," Mr. Bonvegna explained at the time.

More recently, Sen. Frederick C. Malkus Jr., D-Dorchester, gave scholarships to three cousins, including one to William B. Malkus.

Mr. Malkus has said he gave William the award because he wanted the young man, who is adopted, to feel more like part of the family.

"He was also qualified," the senator insisted. "What great sin is vTC there for me to a give a third-cousin a $400 scholarship? I didn't give my own kids a nickel."

Playing Santa

The current drive to end the system seems to have angered many lawmakers, who have grown used to playing Santa Claus back home. Their defensiveness was palpable at a hearing in a House committee last month when Rebecca L. Dubin, aUniversity of Maryland College Park student, testified against the program. Del. Clarence Davis, D-Baltimore, questioned Ms. Dubin so harshly he later apologized.

The bill passed by the House Friday would abolish the program but not the scholarship funds. The measure would phase out the program in October 1994, but calls on the General Assembly to replace it with a nonpolitical one before then.

House leaders say the replacement program should take politicians out of the process, but remain flexible enough to aid middle-class students who need help.

The bill now goes to the 11-member Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee. At least five of the senators say they might vote to end the program if officials come up with a suitable replacement.

Although some legislators are unlikely to ever admit that the program is flawed, public pressure might force them to kill it anyway, said Mr. Andrews of Common Cause.

"We don't have to change their minds," he said. "We just need to change their votes."

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