Debts and disorder beset delegate hutchinson

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For someone charged with handling affairs of state, Delegate Leslie E. Hutchinson of Essex has an awfully hard time keeping her own affairs in order. Consider:

* She still owes state income taxes from 1991.

* She so routinely fails to pay her bills in Annapolis that exasperated creditors have tried billing the state.

* She left her job at the Baltimore County Police Department in 1992 after learning she faced disciplinary action for driving on a suspended license and failing to make good quickly on a bad check.

* She has yet to file a state campaign finance report due, by law, last November.

* And, as reported last week, she has been cited five times in the last three years for traffic violations -- including driving without insurance -- and has failed to show up for trial seven times.

"It's sort of embarrassing to the legislature, as well as to me," House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. said last week of Delegate Hutchinson's financial troubles in Annapolis.

"This is the first time I've had as many complaints about anyone," Mr. Mitchell said, adding the situation "has gotten a little out of hand."

Ms. Hutchinson, a 31-year-old Democrat, did not return repeated phone calls to her home and office Friday and over the weekend. Her grandmother, with whom she lives, said that Ms. Hutchinson was in town and had received messages from The Sun asking for comment for this article but that she was not available.

In previous interviews, the first-term delegate has tearfully portrayed herself as a single mother who has trouble making ends meet on her $28,000 legislative salary and the $8,460 expense allowance she receives from the state. She has a 10-year-old son.

But she does not appear to have taken any steps to economize while living in Annapolis during the annual 90-day session of the General Assembly.

In fact, by making scores of long-distance phone calls and renting expensive houses and hotel rooms, she has run up bills beyond what the state will pay -- and stuck one landlord and an Annapolis hotel with her debts.

During this year's session, Ms. Hutchinson rented a house near the water in Annapolis' expensive historic district, a short jaunt from the State House.

While there, she ran up more than $1,500 in utility and long-distance phone bills, some of which remain unpaid. Her taxpayer-subsidized phone bills included dozens of calls to Washington, D.C., Orlando, Fla., Beverly Hills, Calif., New York City and even Argentina.

The company that managed the rental sent several strongly worded letters to Ms. Hutchinson urging her to pay those mounting bills, as required by her lease.

It also put her on notice that neighbors had complained about parties and litter at the house. "Any further complaints will result in the owner asking you to vacate," one letter said.

Owes utility bills

To date, Ms. Hutchinson still owes about $1,300 for utilities, phone and rent -- plus $300 for damaging items inside the house, according to owners Richard and Erica Lowery.

Mr. Lowery said that when the couple returned to their home this spring, they found broken dishes and glasses, ruined linens and some missing items. "She kept our house like a pigsty," Mr. Lowery said.

"I am going to make a claim against the state if this delegate is not going to pay her bill," he said.

He will not be successful with such a claim, predicted Speaker Mitchell, because his lease was with Ms. Hutchinson personally.

Mr. Mitchell, a Kent County Democrat, said he has encouraged Ms. Hutchinson to be "responsible," but "there's not much I can do."

During a legislative session, Maryland's 188 lawmakers may be reimbursed up to a certain amount for their food and lodging costs. In 1993, for example, the absolute limit for each lawmaker was $94 a day for 90 days, for the maximum of $8,460.

Legislators typically pay their bills and then seek reimbursement from the state. Ms. Hutchinson, however, has let many of her bills pile up until her frustrated creditors ask the speaker or the legislative accounting office for help.

In 1991, for example, she stayed at the Loews Annapolis Hotel, which has a four-diamond rating from the American Automobile Association. She still owes the hotel $458 for items such as food, laundry service and phone calls, hotel spokeswoman Diana Kaiser confirmed last week.

During a special session in September of that year, she paid her $85 bill at the Annapolis Marriott Waterfront Hotel with an invalid credit card, according to records submitted by the hotel. Marriott spent months trying to get Ms. Hutchinson to pay. Finally, nine months after her one-day stay, the state agreed to cover the bill.

State seeks tax payment

One of Ms. Hutchinson's creditors is the state of Maryland itself.

According to court records, the state obtained a judgment against her on June 9, 1992, for $238 in unpaid income taxes, interest and penalties from 1991. The state is still trying to collect that money, according to court records and Marvin Bond, a spokesman for the comptroller's office.

Although Ms. Hutchinson receives a state paycheck, tax officials did not garnishee her wages because, Mr. Bond said, they probably did not realize she was a state employee. Officials typically do not compare the list of delinquent taxpayers against the list of state employees because such efforts can cost more than they would recoup, he said.

Another creditor, however, is garnisheeing her state wages because she failed to make timely payments on a car loan, court records show.

In July 1989, Ms. Hutchinson obtained a five-year, 11.9 percent interest car loan for $19,917 from the Baltimore County Federal Credit Union in Towson so she could buy a new Chevy Cavalier convertible.

The payments were to be $408 a month, but she fell behind. Last November, the credit union obtained a judgment against her for $14,468 in District Court in Essex. The credit union obtained a writ of garnishment on her state salary Jan. 5, and monthly payments of $395.57 are now being made on the debt.

Trouble blamed on lack of job

Ms. Hutchinson has said her financial difficulties stem from her inability to find a second job in more than a year. Being a legislator is considered part-time work.

She left her last job at the Baltimore County Police Department in January 1992 because "they didn't have anything for me to do," she told The Sun last week. In fact, she was facing disciplinary action when she resigned from the $20-an-hour position, Sgt. Stephen R. Doarnberger, a police spokesman, later confirmed.

An internal investigation in late 1991 sustained departmental charges that she drove a car while her license was suspended and that she wrote a bad check to a Belair Road furniture store. She eventually paid that debt.

Although many employers would not care about such matters, the Police Department holds its sworn and civilian employees to a stringent code of conduct.

Ms. Hutchinson was informed of the results of the inquiry in late December 1991. She resigned within weeks before any specific punishment could be recommended, Sergeant Doarnberger said.

More recently, she launched a business that plans parties and conferences. A month ago, she sent letters to a variety of state officials noting her position as a legislator and soliciting business for her company -- a possible violation of ethics rules.

She also is one of a handful of legislators who have had problems filing campaign finance reports on time, as required by law.

In Maryland, candidates for statewide or legislative office must file at least seven finance reports with the state elections board during a four-year election cycle.

She is one of two lawmakers who have not filed a report due eight months ago, according to elections records. And her campaign was months late in filing three 1991 reports. Ms. Hutchinson has said that those reports were late because her treasurer was ill.

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