Quentin R. Lawson, Gov. Parris N. Glendening's latest nominee for secretary of personnel, unexpectedly withdrew his nomination yesterday after a New York newspaper reported that he had been accused by former co-workers of sexual harassment and misappropriation of funds.
The 62-year-old Mr. Lawson denied the allegations, saying they were "unfounded" and calling them "an aberration" in a long and distinguished career as an educator, researcher and public servant.
Nevertheless, after a 50-minute afternoon meeting with Mr. Glendening and chief of staff Major F. Riddick Jr., Mr. Lawson said he decided it was in both his and the governor's best interests for him to withdraw.
"This in no way is an admission of guilt," he said. "I've been a supporter of the governor long before he became governor. It is not my desire to give him additional grief. He has enough already."
Mr. Lawson had not been scheduled to begin work officially until Oct. 23, but he sat in on his first work session with the governor Wednesday. He faced a confirmation vote by the state Senate in January, but until yesterday, that had been regarded as a formality.
His departure marks the third time in the 10 months since Mr. Glendening took office that a Cabinet secretary or nominee has been forced to resign.
Aides said the governor was not available for comment yesterday.
According to a story in yesterday's editions of the Long Island newspaper Newsday, employees of Mr. Lawson when he was executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in Washington accused him this summer of unethical handling of foundation funds and sexual harassment.
Linda Faye Williams, former director of the foundation's Institute for Policy Research and Education, and Mia Barber, Mr. Lawson's former executive assistant, were subsequently fired by the foundation.
Neither could be reached for comment yesterday. Nor would the two women speak with Newsday.
Mr. Lawson said financial audits of foundation finances prove that there was no mishandling of funds, as Ms. Williams has reportedly charged. He said an internal investigation of Ms. Barber's sexual harassment charges found those allegations to be unsubstantiated as well.
He described Ms. Barber as a protege and he as her mentor. "She came to me for advice, buying automobiles or where to live. In no circumstances, and in no time, did I make any advances or do anything to her or say anything to her that I would not say to you or other people," he said.
Mr. Riddick said he had no way of quickly determining whether any of the allegations against Mr. Lawson were true, but said neither Mr. Lawson nor Mr. Glendening wanted to subject
themselves to months of controversy and bad publicity. He called the incident "a distraction and a diversion."
"You have people concerned about whether the administration can move away from controversy and effectively move the agenda of personnel reform, and any reorganizations that may ensue, and any issues around personnel matters. Can you effectively do that where there is an individual who is a cloud?
"It becomes just a spinning controversy," he added. "And this administration is determined to move away and stay away from controversy and pursue the agenda."
Before being picked for the $94,771-a-year job, Mr. Lawson had served as chairman of Maryland's Higher Education Commission.
Mr. Lawson was selected Sept. 19 to replace Michael J. Knapp, the Maryland personnel secretary who was forced to resign Sept. 1 after becoming embroiled in a series of pay, hiring and pension scandals.
The same day Mr. Knapp resigned, the governor also solicited the resignation of Labor, Licensing and Regulation Secretary Frank W. Stegman, who had been involved in the same Prince George's County pension controversy that engulfed the Glendening Administration in its first months in office.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat, said: "Very few legislators knew Mr. Lawson personally, and this comes as a surprise to members of the General Assembly, as I'm sure it does to the chief executive. The bad news is that this occurred, and the good news is that this information was made available before the secretary was confirmed."
Mr. Riddick defended the screening procedures the administration used in selecting Mr. Lawson, and Mr. Miller agreed. "We do the best we can with limited resources," Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Riddick said he had heard rumors of some sort of financial problems at the nonprofit, nonpartisan foundation before Mr. Lawson was appointed personnel secretary, but was assured by two prominent foundation board members -- U.S. Reps. Kweisi Mfume of Maryland and William L. Clay Sr. of Missouri -- that all was well.
Eula Adams, chairman of the foundation's finance committee, is quoted by Newsday as saying an internal audit showed no improprieties.
Mr. Riddick said he did not hear of the sexual harassment allegations until a Newsday reporter called Maryland officials for a comment Oct. 6. He said those allegations were the most troubling.
"In finances, there is not a controversy. The books are the books. But with sexual harassment, there is no set of books," he said.
"Who knows?" he added. "Several months down the road someone may say, 'Never mind.' Or, someone may say, 'Ah-ha.' "