Contradicting a remark she made to a Baltimore radio station, Rep. Helen Delich Bentley denied yesterday being offered "direct monetary inducement" to her gubernatorial campaign in exchange for a pro-NAFTA vote.
Phoning a talk-show program Friday, Mrs. Bentley, an ardent opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement, told the host: "For your information, I was offered way up in the six figures for my gubernatorial campaign if I'd switch my vote."
But in a four-paragraph statement released late yesterday, Mrs. Bentley said that while "many business leaders" from around the country had attempted to persuade her to change her position on NAFTA, no quid-pro-quo offer was made connecting her support to a campaign contribution.
"On more than one occasion it came up that my fund-raising abilities in the business community would be greatly enhanced," the statement read. "No one ever insulted my integrity by offering me any kind of direct monetary inducement; they simply suggested that by changing my position it would benefit campaign fund raising."
The statement also noted that the Clinton administration has put tremendous pressure on Congress and is "spending large amounts of taxpayers' money to try and convince members to vote for NAFTA."
"The bottom line is that I will never compromise my principles in standing up for Maryland working people for the sake of campaign contributions," the statement concluded.
But Mrs. Bentley, 69, declined to discuss the matter with a reporter.
"Every time I open my mouth, people blow up everything I say," she said. "People said when I got in the race, they'd pick on everything I said. I knew it would happen."
Pressed last night in a brief telephone conversation on whether the radio remark and yesterday's statement were contradictory, she replied: "It's not a contradiction." Asked why, she snapped: "I'm not going to get into that with you."
Mrs. Bentley's statement was consistent with comments made in the past two days by her Hill staffers, who have tried to downplay the radio station comment.
Chris Griffin, a Bentley aide, said flatly yesterday: "It is my understanding that this did not happen.
"It wouldn't surprise me if someone said to her, 'If you'd switch your vote, you'd probably do well in the campaign,' " Mr. Griffin said. "I think this is people making mountains out of molehills."
But Mrs. Bentley's five fellow Maryland gubernatorial candidates were less generous in their appraisals. Yesterday, all of them called on the five-term Republican congresswoman from Baltimore County to set the record straight.
"What did she mean by six figures? Six people? Six mannequins?" asked Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, a Democratic candidate for governor. "How did she get the term, 'six figures?' That means at least $100,000. Everyone shouldn't be put in the position of having to guess whether that's accurate or not."
Candidate William S. Shepard, the GOP's 1990 gubernatorial nominee, said Mrs. Bentley either failed to report an attempted ,, bribe or exaggerated the situation. In either case, she needs to explain herself, he said.
"This is a serious matter," said Mr. Shepard. "I would expect an absolute full disclosure."
Mr. Shepard said possible crimes should not be reported on radio talk shows, but to prosecutors -- something Mrs. Bentley's aides have said she has not done. If what she described is true, it could mean federal and state laws were broken, he said.
"If these aren't serious allegations, and this was just another example of her confusion, then the allegations should be swiftly withdrawn," Mr. Shepard said.
Another Republican candidate, House Minority Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey, said she was "astounded" when she heard Mrs. Bentley's comment Friday morning on a WCBM program with host Zoh Hieronimus.
"I think she was on the air trying to make a point, and she either made a very reckless charge or she misspoke," Mrs. Sauerbrey said. "I heard what she said, and I think she has an obligation to substantiate her charges."
Several candidates compared Mrs. Bentley's statements to her blaming a nay vote on the Brady handgun bill on malfunctioning equipment. On Thursday, Mrs. Bentley was recorded as voting against the legislation that requires a five-day waiting period to buy a handgun.
At the time, Mrs. Bentley said she would insert in the Congressional Record that her vote had been recorded erroneously and that she had intended to vote yes, as she had said she would at a news conference Wednesday announcing her candidacy. Mrs. Bentley blamed the confusion on the electronic system that tallies votes, a system that Capitol Hill staffers say has never failed.
"In our area, people are really outraged about her vote on the Brady bill," said Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate. "It's an interesting way to start a campaign. That's two instances in two days."
He said Mrs. Bentley has unnecessarily muddied the race for governor and the campaign for NAFTA and can "restore her credibility by saying very clearly who it was who made those offers or hinted at them."
State Sen. Mary H. Boergers, a Montgomery County Democrat and gubernatorial candidate, called Mrs. Bentley's behavior "bizarre," particularly from such an experienced politician. If she felt she had been the target of an attempted bribe, Mrs. Bentley had an obligation to immediately report that to authorities, Mrs. Boergers said. "Coming right on the heels of voting the wrong way on the gun issue, it certainly seems very strange," she said. "When a pattern begins to appear that someone appears very confused or exhibits bizarre behavior, you begin to wonder if they're up to governing."