Lawmaker, lobbyist maintain close business affiliations Long-standing ties link Della, Wyatt

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the cozy world of Maryland politics, the line drawn between lawmakers who represent the public and lobbyists who are paid by special interests often becomes blurred.

But even by State House standards, rarely is a relationship as close as the one between Sen. George W. Della Jr. of Baltimore and lobbyist Maurice R. "Mo" Wyatt, the one-time patronage chief for former Gov. Marvin Mandel.

The two men have a lifelong friendship rooted in their fathers' South Baltimore political machine, the Della-Wyatt organization. But they also have a number of business affiliations and other ties that go beyond the usual links between legislators and lobbyists.

Consider:

* Senator Della is licensed as a real estate agent with Mr. Wyatt's company, TMK Real Estate Corp. -- and is its resident agent, the contact person when the corporation is being served court papers.

* Senator Della's Federal Hill home is the principal office address of a second company owned by Mr. Wyatt, The Nyberg & Associates Co., a specialty advertising firm. The principal address is considered by the state Department of Assessments and Taxation to be the main office of the business, where the company's bylaws are required by law to be kept.

* In the past two years, Senator Della has sponsored three bills -- on city bingo permits, on transfers of salvage vehicles, and on personal injury protection (PIP) insurance -- that were lobbied by Mr. Wyatt for clients.

* The year before Senator Della's 1990 re-election campaign, Mr. Wyatt's clients and business associates purchased $4,000 worth fund-raiser tickets on the senator's behalf, nearly 10 percent of the ticket purchases listed in his campaign finance reports.

* The finance reports also show that Senator Della's campaign paid $3,200 for computer equipment and repair work to Consolidated Computer Investors Inc., a company owned by Mr. Wyatt's wife, Beverly A. Wyatt. The campaign also paid $3,000 to Nyberg for campaign materials and Christmas cards.

* Senator Della, a Democrat from Baltimore's 47th legislative district, is one of 23 state political and business leaders who has written letters to the Court of Appeals supporting Mr. Wyatt's efforts to regain his law license after a 1980 bribery conviction forced his disbarment. Gov. William Donald Schaefer has pardoned Mr. Wyatt.

Senator Della, 50, says that he has never profited from his relations with Mr. Wyatt, that he has violated no laws or ethics rules, and that he sees nothing wrong with his ties to the lobbyist.

"I've done absolutely nothing improper, and if there's an appearance of anything improper, it's just the appearance, not the fact," Senator Della said.

Mr. Wyatt, 51, through his attorney, declines to discuss the issue.

Maryland law requires that most public officials disclose certain information about business affiliations, stock holdings and property ownership. General Assembly ethics rules require legislators to disqualify themselves from acting on legislation that might benefit them or file disclosures making possible conflicts of interest public.

But the laws and rules governing disclosure and conflicts of interest -- even the presumption of a conflict -- hinge on the state official's benefiting financially.

None of the Della-Wyatt affiliations is mentioned in disclosure forms filed with the State Ethics Commission or in disqualification and conflict of interest disclosures filed with the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics.

"I've never benefited

Senator Della said that disclosure of any affiliation with the lobbyist is not necessary because he has not realized any financial gain as a result of the bills he introduced or his relationship with Mr. Wyatt.

"I've never benefited directly or indirectly on anything" involving the Wyatt businesses, he said.

Maryland ethics officials said they were reluctant to discuss the relationship because their official duties might require them to investigate such a matter.

But Paul J. Smith, the retired chairman of the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission, said the business affiliations have the appearance of impropriety. "If I was still on the ethics commission in Pennsylvania and someone presented that to me, I probably wouldn't sleep tonight," Mr. Smith said. "I would want someone to come in and answer some questions and assure me that it was on the up and up."

Records of the Maryland Real Estate Commission show that Senator Della's real estate license is held by TMK -- a point he himself acknowledges.

But Senator Della said he never has collected a commission or salary from TMK since transferring his license to the company 17 years ago.

That, he said, was because he never pursued the real estate career he considered as possible fall-back employment nearly 20 years ago, when first licensed as an agent with a company owned by the late Sen. Harry J. McGuirk, the consummate political insider and deal-maker born of the Della-Wyatt machine.

Senator Della said the sole reason for his affiliation with TMK is so he can keep his license active. Maryland law requires that real estate agents must be licensed to a broker to hold a state license.

While brokers have the legal responsibility for supervising the agents and must sign agents' licenses, the agents generally are considered independent contractors and not brokers' "employees," state officials said.

Corporate records on file with the Department of Assessments and Taxation show Nyberg's principal office address as that of Senator Della's home, though the company's mailing address was changed some years ago to 2123 Maryland Ave., at Mr. Wyatt's Baltimore office.

"Matter of convenience

Senator Della said he did not know that his name and address were on TMK and Nyberg documents, but that he did not doubt that they were.

He said that using his name and address was "probably just a matter of convenience" for a group of family members who once practiced law in the same office, as they drew up papers in 1981 for TMK and Nyberg.

That group included the senator'sfather, the late George W. Della, one-time president of the Maryland Senate; Mr. Wyatt's father, the late Joseph M. Wyatt, a lobbyist and former state senator; and the lobbyist's late brother, Edward G. Wyatt, also a lobbyist and lawyer.

The elder Mr. Della was a founding director of Nyberg and also resident agent for the company from 1981 to 1990, when he was replaced by another lawyer, state corporation documents show. But Nyberg's principal address remained at Senator Della's home, the records show.

Over the past two years, Senator Della has introduced three bills that were beneficial to Mr. Wyatt's clients -- the most controversial being legislation on personal injury insurance that died in this year's session, despite extraordinary efforts by House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr.

The PIP controversy

All three bills were lobbied by Mr. Wyatt on behalf of his clients, according to lobbyist reports filed with the State Ethics Commission.

A longtime fixture at the Maryland State House with close ties to the governor's office and General Assembly, Mr. Wyatt ranked as the 33rd highest-paid lobbyist in Annapolis, earning $62,000, plus expenses, from six clients during the six-month reporting period that included the 1992 legislative session. For the same period this year, which ended April 30, he earned $62,500 plus expenses from five clients, according to lobbyist reports.

Senator Della said in recent interviews that Mr. Wyatt did not ask him to sponsor the legislation for his clients. He said the PIP bill was his own idea and that the other two bills were requested by constituents.

Mr. Wyatt and his clients "may have seen an opportunity once they saw the [insurance] legislation, but it was not introduced at their request," Senator Della said.

But to those familiar with the PIP legislation, it was considered "Mo's bill."

The two Wyatt clients favoring the PIP legislation were Baltimore Industrial Medical Center Inc., owned by Della campaign supporter Russell A. May, and Metropolitan Clinics Inc., owned by Arnold Praver, a businessman friend of Mr. Mitchell's.

Mr. Wyatt was paid $20,000 plus expenses by Metropolitan Clinics -- his highest-paying client -- and $12,000 by Baltimore Industrial Medical Center for lobbying various bills, including the PIP legislation, his lobbyist activity reports showed.

Metropolitan Clinics' principal and mailing addresses are 2123 Maryland Ave., Mr. Wyatt's companies' address, and Mr. Praver was one of the businessmen who wrote the Court of Appeals supporting the lobbyist's reinstatement to the Maryland bar, state records show.

The legislation, which was also favored by the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association, would have required drivers who do not have medical insurance to buy the extra PIP auto insurance to cover their medical bills, if they were injured in an accident.

By helping to ensure that medical providers receive payment for their services, the bill would have benefited the clinics. Opponents of the bill charged that it would encourage accident victims to run up larger medical bills, thereby helping their lawyers obtain more money from the driver who caused the accident.

In an unusual move, Mr. Mitchell, a Kent County Democrat, testifiedbefore the Senate Finance Committee in favor of the measure, which would have benefited Mr. Praver, his longtime friend who is also a lobbying client of Mr. Wyatt's.

The episode further raised eyebrows because Mr. Mitchell's son Clayton A. Mitchell also works for Mr. Wyatt as a TMK real estate agent.

At the time, Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Wyatt denied any connection between the lobbyist's employment of the younger Mr. Mitchell as a real estate agent and their separate efforts on behalf of the legislation.

Senator Della denied that he introduced the bill at Mr. Wyatt's request, saying that the lobbyist only became interested in the legislation "after I dropped the bill in.

"I wanted people to think twice before they waived PIP, because I think a lot of people do it for the sake of saving on an auto premium, and then realize they have no medical coverage when they have automobile accident," Senator Della said.

Ultimately the matter of the PIP bill was put to rest for this year, after heavy lobbying against the legislation by the insurance industry and Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund, the state's insurer of last resort.

The Finance Committee voted down Senator Della's bill, and sponsors of the House version withdrew their legislation.

The other bills

A second bill Senator Della introduced this year was legislation that allowed for Baltimore City bingo permits to be valid for a year, instead of just three months. The overall cost of the permit did not change; the one year permit is $3,000, four times the $750 three-month fee.

In lobbyist disclosure reports filed this year with the State Ethics Commission, Mr. Wyatt listed that bill as one of five on which he was lobbying for Patapsco Bingo, a Baltimore concern operated by Joseph Brzuchalski, whom Senator Della refers to as "Bingo Joe."

The senator again denied Mr. Wyatt had anything to do with his introducing the bill. In fact, he said, "I don't think he was involved in that permit bill at all."

He did say that he knew Mr. Wyatt lobbied for Patapsco Bingo, but only on other bingo-related bills before the legislature this year.

Senator Della said he sponsored his bill because constituents -- mainly representatives of churches and nonprofit organizations -- were finding it cumbersome to renew the permits every three months.

The governor signed the legislation into law April 26.

The third bill was introduced in the 1992 legislative session.

Senator Della sponsored the Senate version of a bill that allowed an "automotive dismantler and recycler" to sell a vehicle to the public on a salvage certificate without having to apply for a new title.

Among other things, the bill allowed for the retail sale of vehicles without the automotive dismantler and recycler having to obtain a safety inspection or an inspection of the vehicle identification number, provided that the vehicle is sold on the salvage certificate.

Senator Della said he sponsored the 1992 bill based on a request from, among others, James G. Gosnell Sr., an East Baltimore recycler who is chairman of the legislative committee of the Maryland Auto and Truck Recyclers Association -- one of Mr. Wyatt's lobbying clients.

"I go to the auctions," he said. "That's probably the first I heard of it, from Jimmy and other people."

Asked if Mr. Wyatt was among the others, Senator Della said: "No, he was not involved in any kind of initial conversation with that."

TC While used car dealers opposed Senator Della's bill, the Maryland Department of Transportation supported it. The legislation sailed through the Senate and House and was signed into law by the governor on May 26, 1992.

Campaign finances

Financing reports filed with the State Administrative Board of Elections Laws show that clients and associates of Mr. Wyatt supported Senator Della in his 1990 re-election bid by donating at least $4,000 of the $43,100 raised from fund-raiser ticket sales.

Each of three companies owned by Wyatt client Russell A. May -- including Baltimore Industrial Medical Center -- purchased tickets for a 1989 Della fund-raiser at $1,000 each, the reports show.

In addition, the Baltimore law firm of Siskind, Burch, Grady and Rosen -- a politically well-connected concern that has counted among its principals a former Maryland attorney general and former Baltimore mayor -- purchased $1,000 in tickets to the fund-raiser.

Mr. Wyatt, who once shared office space with the firm before his 1982 disbarment, has represented clients of the law firm as a lobbyist before the legislature, according to a letter in support of his reinstatement to the bar by Arvin E. Rosen, a principal in the firm.

In addition, Mr. Rosen, who has represented both Mr. Wyatt and his companies, is the resident agent for all three of Mr. May's companies, as well as Mrs. Wyatt's computer company, Consolidated Computer Investors. He also is resident agent for a Prince George's County radiology practice that purchased $1,000 in tickets to the Della fund-raiser.

But money did not just flow into the Della campaign, known as Friends of Sen. George W. Della Jr.

Records show that the campaign made purchases from Mrs. Wyatt's computer company and from one of Mr. Wyatt's companies.

Campaign financing reports show that last June, Senator Della's campaign purchased a $1,365 computer from Consolidated Computer Investors Inc. A month later, the campaign purchased a $462 computer disk drive from the company.

A year and a half earlier, in January 1991, Senator Della's campaign purchased a $1,244 laser printer from Mrs. Wyatt's company.

The campaign paid $140 to the company for a computer repair in March 1989.

"I don't know anything about computers," the senator said. "I went to someone I know who knows about them. Is anything wrong with that?"

Consolidated Computer Investors is also a supplier to two vendors with sole-source contracts with the state: Vorec Corp., which supplies home-detention equipment to the public safety department; and GTECH, the Maryland State Lottery's main vendor.

One of GTECH's lobbyists is Mr. Mandel, who, as governor, was Mr. Wyatt's boss.

The financing reports also showed that in June 1989 -- more than a year before the last statewide primary election -- Senator Della's campaign paid $2,816 to Nyberg & Associates for "campaign materials."

The only other reference to Nyberg, which among other things, sells specialty advertising novelties, is a $206 Christmas card purchase from the company in December 1986.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
54°