Gray's bills for phone stir questions His cellular tab far exceeds those of all colleagues; 'It helps the county'; Democrat's expenses a political issue for GOP council members


C. Vernon Gray, a longtime Howard County councilman and likely Democratic contender for county executive in 1998, lives by his county-financed cellular phone, making as many as 17 calls an hour while driving around the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

"I've got to use the phone," Mr. Gray says. "When you're in politics, you're in the phone business."

As a result, Mr. Gray's cellular phone bills -- or $6,158 for the 15 months through August, an average of more than $400 a month -- were more than double those of the four other Howard County Council members combined.

Council Republicans have made a political issue of Mr. Gray's cellular phone bills, charging that their size points to irresponsibility or abuse.

A Sun examination of the bills from June of last year through August of this year yields a picture of a modern politician intermingling government business, political connections and personal networking.

The records show that Mr. Gray occasionally used his county phone to call video stores, his doctor, relatives, the starter shack at a local country club -- without reimbursing the county. And the councilman acknowledges that his son used the phone to make a rash of late-night calls the county wasn't reimbursed for.

During the same period, Mr. Gray made personal calls for which he did reimburse the county. And he indicated he would pay the county for any unreimbursed personal calls.

County records made available for the period from the beginning of June 1994 through June 1995 show Mr. Gray reimbursed the county $612 of $5,561 for all calls made during that 13 months -- or 11 percent. Mr. Gray has not reimbursed the county for private calls made after last June.

The relatively few questionable calls were made during a period when Mr. Gray placed thousands of calls for government-related purposes.

Mr. Gray, a councilman since 1982, has had his county cellular phone since 1991. He keeps his calls brief. He calls attorneys whose clients come before the council sitting as the county zoning board. He calls developers building houses in Howard. He calls investment companies doing county business.

He calls the office of his friend Gov. Parris N. Glendening to put in good words, he says, for possible appointees. He calls Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. "I can just call him and get things done," Mr. Gray says.

And he calls constituents -- even those who are merely having problems with their water bills or cable services.

Mr. Gray says the phone is essential. "That's how you get things done. Everything doesn't take legislation."

Inside his car -- a 1993 BMW that replaced an aged Nissan -- Mr. Gray turns on the speaker-phone function. He commutes to Morgan State University in Baltimore, where he is a political science professor, at least two days a week. He even phones from his car while driving around Columbia, where he lives.

Take the afternoon of Sept. 27. "Watch what you say. I've got a reporter here," Mr. Gray jokes over the phone to an executive at the Maryland Association of Counties.

Mr. Gray wanted the executive's endorsement because the councilman is running for second vice president of the National Association of Counties, a position that would automatically elevate him to president of the national group in four years.

That call was followed by more phone conversations -- among them, one with a hotel executive from whom he was seeking a good deal on a suite for a personal trip to New York City.

Mr. Gray has his cellular phone at his side outside his car at times. Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga recalls that when he played golf with Mr. Gray in September, his colleague was on the phone for much of the 18 holes.

The cost of these calls -- at 40 cents for the first minute and 30 cents thereafter -- has led to criticism.

In last fall's Democratic primary campaign, Mr. Gray's challenger, Kathryn Adair Fish Mann, released documents showing that his calls accounted for 20 percent of the county's total cellular phone bill during a 13-month period.

Mr. Gray kept his council seat, but the election led to a Republican council majority for the first time in Mr. Gray's career. The Republicans then set out to curb members' expenses, which Mr. Gray says was aimed at his political future.

"They should spend more time doing their jobs than trying to undermine my effectiveness," Mr. Gray says of his council critics.

In April, council members informally agreed to limit their cellular phone expenses to $1,500 per member annually, effective July 1. The council recently changed that limit to an annual total of $4,800 for each member for phone use and travel, a sum that still would be exceeded by the pace of Mr. Gray's spending.

At the time of that change, Mr. Feaga questioned whether Mr. Gray was placing too many personal calls. "I can't imagine it's just business calls on the big bill of his," Mr. Feaga said. "We've got to [determine] if these calls were really business."

A detailed Sun analysis of Mr. Gray's cellular phone calls -- covering all of his 2,695 calls from March through August of this year -- found that most of his calls were for business -- the business of politics, that is.

"That's what politics is, building networks," Mr. Gray says. "It helps the county in the final analysis. It helps my constituents in the final analysis. If I would just sit in a cocoon here, not knowing anybody, I don't think I would be an effective council member."

Like the four other council members, Mr. Gray has a government office with a phone in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City. But with his commute to Morgan and government 'f appointments, he says, he spends more time in his car than in his office.

The phone bills show that a key element of Mr. Gray's network involves Browning-Ferris Industries Inc., an international waste-management company that is paid about $1.4 million a year by Howard County, according to the county Department of Public Works.

BFI has six different contracts with the county to pick up garbage and process yard waste, bottles, cans, plastics and newspapers. It plans to build a waste-transfer station in Elkridge in the hope of winning a county waste-transfer contract or using it to serve neighboring counties.

Contacts between Mr. Gray and BFI or its representatives are frequent, his phone bills show.

From March to August, Mr. Gray made 21 cellular calls to John Lininger, BFI's area marketing manager. "They were probably lobbying me on the transfer station," Mr. Gray says.

Mr. Lininger says the calls show Mr. Gray's effectiveness: "Driving down the road for one to 1 1/2 hours without doing anything is a bad use of your time. Four hundred dollars is not a small amount of money [for phone calls]. But if you can solve a $20,000 problem or a $100,000 problem it's a good deal."

In the same time period, Mr. Gray placed 13 calls to John Breitenberg, a Howard County-based lawyer who represents, among others, BFI. Mr. Breitenberg says the calls were all government-related but refused to provide details, saying, "Those communications are private."

Mr. Gray made 23 calls to attorneys at Laven, Schimel, Belman and Abramson, a Columbia law firm that also has represented BFI.

Last month, one of the firm's partners, David Abramson, held a $250-a-ticket fund-raiser at his home that raised an estimated $10,000 for Mr. Gray's likely run for county executive in 1998.

In the past six years, lawyers from the firm have made six donations totaling $1,275 to Mr. Gray's campaigns. Mr. Breitenberg made a $950 contribution. BFI gave $75, as did Mr. Lininger. (Mr. Gray has raised a total of more than $110,000 in that time.)

Mr. Gray has not ignored BFI's competition.

From March to August, he placed nine calls to Whiting-Turner Construction Co., headed by Willard Hackerman, who also is president of Pulaski Co., a waste-management company that competes with BFI. Neither Mr. Hackerman nor the two companies have contributed to Mr. Gray's campaigns, according state records.

Also among the 2,695 cellular calls Mr. Gray made in the six months from March through August -- paid for by the county -- were:

* 636 calls to Howard County government offices -- from County Council aides to the department directors.

* 167 calls to Mr. Gray's home, where constituents, politicians and journalists often leave messages.

* 161 calls to Mr. Gray's message service.

* 54 calls to a number for a state criminal justice committee on which Mr. Gray served for Mr. Glendening, Mr. Gray says.

* 45 calls to Mr. Gray's office at Morgan State University, where Mr. Gray says many people leave government-related messages for him.

* 17 calls to the Howard Hospital Foundation, where Mr. Gray is on the board of directors.

* 13 calls to Independent Sector, a charity umbrella organization based in Washington.

* 12 calls to the Morgan State University president's office.

* 10 calls to Chapman Co., a Baltimore investment company. In 1992, Howard County invested $1 million in mutual funds run by Chapman, a minority-owned Baltimore business, says Dale Neubert, county finance director.

The funds yield lower returns than some others, but the county invested in them as part of a goal of "community investing," Mr. Neubert says.

From 1990 to 1992, Chapman made three donations to Mr. Gray's campaign fund totaling $1,220, state records show.

* 11 calls to Commercial Contractors in Baltimore County, which is headed by Nicholas Mangione, owner of the Turf Valley Country Club. Mr. Gray says Mr. Mangione is "doing a lot of homebuilding" in Howard. In 1992, Mr. Mangione donated $750 to Mr. Gray's campaign.

* 10 calls to Maryland State Police headquarters. Mr. Gray says he is concerned that not enough minority officers hold high-ranking positions.

* Eight calls to the Baltimore Urban League, where Mr. Gray is on the board of directors.

* Seven calls to Pimlico Race Course. "That's to Joe De Francis, to his sister or to Martin Jacobs," Mr. Gray says, referring to the owners of Pimlico and Laurel racetracks. Mr. Gray borrowed $8,000, interest-free, from the Laurel track for his campaign in 1989 and repaid it in 1994, according to state campaign records.

* Seven calls to the Maryland Department of Human Resources. Mr. Gray was on an advisory body on restructuring the department, the agency's Diane Gordy says.

* Seven calls to Taro Spring Water in Clarksville. Mr. Gray says he has called Mr. Glendening to ask that the company's water be in the state's gift baskets of Maryland wines.

* Seven calls to Valic, a Glen Burnie company that manages one of two voluntary retirement savings plans for the Howard County Office of Personnel. "They asked us to help get business" around the country, Mr. Gray says. "I do recommend them."

Tomorrow morning, Christopher Emery, the council administrator, is to distribute a monthly update on each council member's expenses that might prompt more political wrangling over Mr. Gray's cellular phone bills.

But Mr. Gray vows not to change his dialing habits. "It bothers me to think I should do as [little] as they do," he says of his council counterparts.

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