County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray said yesterday he will not participate in a zoning case involving the Laurel Racing Association because of questions raised by his political rival about a campaign debt dating from 1989.
Kathryn Mann, Mr. Gray's Democratic opponent for the council seat for East Columbia in the Sept. 13 primary, questioned Mr. Gray's $8,000 debt to Laurel Race Course Tuesday and called on Mr. Gray to excuse himself from participation in the July 13 zoning decision.
The council sitting as the Zoning Board is scheduled to hear the racing association's request for a special exception that would allow parking on a 70-acre tract adjacent to the site of a proposed $160 million stadium for the Washington Redskins football team.
"Given the perception that may be raised, it does not look good for me to participate" in the decision, Mr. Gray said yesterday. "I understand that people may construe my vote -- however I vote -- as influenced by the debt. If I vote for the [the special exception] they could say I was influenced favorably. If I vote against it, they could say I was influenced negatively. It is an untenable situation."
Ms. Mann sent Mr. Gray and other council members a two-page letter July 4 accusing the council chairman of exercising undue influence in getting the Laurel Race Course case included on a schedule she assumed was closed for the year except for some minor corrections of the zoning regulations.
"The unusual conditions of this substantial [debt], whether or not it has been repaid since your last campaign finance report, must raise questions about your ability to remain impartial, particularly in light of your recent agreement to give Laurel Racing Association's petition preferential treatment in the assignment of hearing date," Ms. Mann said in her letter.
"Your action in setting aside the normal requirements for scheduling in Laurel Raceway's favor only compounds the appearance of collusion and undue influence," she said.
Mr. Gray said it was "unconscionable" to tie his campaign debt to the scheduling of the case. "The record is very clear in how this case was scheduled," he said. "There was no way I had a role in scheduling this case."
Zoning Board Chairman Paul R. Farragut agreed. "It is clearly not correct" that Mr. Gray had a part in scheduling the case, Mr. Farragut said.
He said the scheduling occurred after county Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. called him in May to ask if the case could be fitted into one of the openings on the schedule. "Dr. Gray
never talked to me about it at all," Mr. Farragut said.
When told yesterday that Mr. Gray intends to excuse himself from the case, Ms. Mann said, "I'm glad to hear that. It is absolutely the right choice to make, and I commend him for it. I'm sorry if he took it personally, but I think his decision is the right thing to do."
The fact that Mr. Gray is dropping out and another council member didn't want to hear the case to begin with may mean that the case will not heard this summer, Mr. Farragut said. He said he would ask the other Zoning Board members whether they still want to move forward with the case. "If they don't, we'll drop it," he said.
Mr. Gray said the surprising thing about Ms. Mann's allegations is the timing. The debt has been on his campaign reports for five years, he said.
"I assume if it were a major problem, it would have come out before now. The only thing that makes this a story is that she tied this to the scheduling of the zoning case and tried to make a story out of that. It is totally preposterous to tie me to the zoning schedule.
"I understand that in politics, particularly in campaign politics, people will do whatever they feel they have to do to promote themselves without regard for the truth or the accuracy of what is said," Mr. Gray said.
Mr. Gray said he made verbal arrangements for his July 26, 1989, fund raiser with track owner Frank J. De Francis, who died three weeks after the event.
Mr. Gray said he has had a disagreement with racetrack officials about how much he owes. He says that the bill is closer to $6,000 than $8,000 and that he recently paid $4,000 of the bill.
Racetrack spokesman Tim Capps said the association has not made an issue of the bill because "we fully expect to be repaid" and because "there were no specific terms" other than to "provide a facility, food service and cleanup at a fair market value."
The was no written agreement between Mr. Gray and Mr. De Francis, Mr. Capps said, adding that the transaction "predated everyone here now." Mr. Capps said Mr. Gray has paid some of the bill and "there is no real dispute" about the remainder.
"We believe he negotiated in good faith and the bill will be paid on the basis of fair market value," Mr. Capps said.
"We have no problem with Mr. Gray or anybody else."