Kathryn Mann, a political rival of County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, accused the three-term incumbent yesterday of political impropriety.
At issue is an $8,000 debt for a 1989 fund-raiser at Laurel Raceway listed on Mr. Gray's November 1993 campaign fund report.
The County Council, sitting as the Zoning Board, will hear a case involving the Laurel Racing Association next week and Ms. Mann, who is challenging Mr. Gray in the September Democratic primary, wants Mr. Gray to excuse himself.
That the case was scheduled at the last moment and that Mr. Gray agreed to such scheduling "only compounds the appearance of collusion and undue influence" because of his large unpaid debt, Ms. Mann said.
Mr. Gray called the charge "preposterous and unfounded allegations from someone who was desperate enough to say any number of things."
He plans to mention the debt at the zoning hearing July 13, Mr. Gray said, but not to excuse himself from the discussion. "I can still render an impartial decision," he said. "This is an issue of whether to replace stables with parking. I will listen to the evidence on those issues."
Raceway officials are seeking a special exception to county zoning rules to allow a horse stable and parking on a 70-acre Laurel tract that is adjacent to the site for a proposed $160 million stadium for the Washington Redskins football team.
Mr. Gray's debt is listed as a loan on the cover of his Nov. 8 financial report, but appears later in the report as an unpaid bill for a fund-rairing event at the Laurel Raceway on Mr. Gray's 50th birthday in 1989.
The listing of the debt as a loan is a clerical error, Mr. Gray said. The line for unpaid bills is directly below the line for loans on the campaign reporting forms.
RTC The difference between an unpaid loan and an unpaid bill is crucial. If it is a loan, then Mr. Gray would have to repay it with interest -- or he could be in violation of a 1991 election law requiring payment by Dec. 31, the end of the current election cycle.
Unpaid bills, however, can be carried on campaign financing reports without penalty until they are paid.
"If it's a continuing committee, [as is Mr. Gray's committee] unpaid bills can drag on for a very long time," said Barbara Feaga, Howard County's elections board administrator. "The only incentive [for prompt settlement of unpaid bills] is that you -- have to keep listing them on your campaign report."
Mr. Gray said part of the bill has been paid and the remainder is in dispute. He said he made arrangements for the fund-raiser on July 26, 1989 with the late Frank DeFrancis, the former owner of Laurel Raceway who died three weeks later.
Mr. Gray said raceway officials cannot find records of the agreement and that he disagrees with them on how much he owes. He says it is $6,000 or less and that he recently paid the raceway $4,000.
Ms. Mann said it doesn't matter whether the money was a loan or an unpaid bill that has been settled partially or entirely in the last few months.
"[Mr. Gray] has had an outstanding indebtedness of some kind," she said. "Whether it's an unpaid bill they haven't sued him for, a loan, or an unreported campaign contribution, he's still had the free use of $8,000 for five years," she said.
A larger issue, Ms. Mann said, is that Mr. Gray will be sitting as a Zoning Board member hearing the raceway case July 13.
"Under the circumstances, the appropriate thing would be for him to step aside," Ms. Mann said.
Mr. Gray said that while he can understand confusion about the campaign report, Ms. Mann's complaint is politically motivated.
"To try to make political hay over a disputed bill -- that's what you do if you don't have any issues," Mr. Gray said. "My position is to run on my record and address the concerns of the people. She is known as a not-nice person. I hope this is not indicative of the kind of campaign she is intending to run."