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No crime found in missing letters But police conclusion sets off a new round in councilmen's feud


Howard County police have solved the mystery of county Councilman C. Vernon Gray's missing letters, but the central players in the incident -- now officially noncriminal -- are celebrating the news with a fresh round of feuding.

On the surface, the case of the disappearing letters was mundane: Gray's file of outgoing correspondence briefly vanished one day early last month. He later found it a foot or so away, mixed with Council Chairman Darrel E. Drown's files. A council secretary acknowledged the mistake.

Police concluded late last week that there was nothing to the whole affair.

But Gray, a Democrat, and Drown, a Republican, may face off in 1998 for the county's most powerful office: county executive.

So when three letters from the missing file eventually became the basis for an article in The Sun that raised ethical questions about a fund-raising campaign by Gray, he became angry.

At a council meeting the morning after the article appeared, Gray exploded, accusing council Administrator Christopher B. Emery, a Drown appointee, of leaking the letters. Gray called on police to investigate.

"I'm going to ask the chief [of police] to investigate these things," he said at the meeting. "I see it as a whole case of dirty tricks."

Cpl. Charles Dittman, an investigator with the County Police Crimes Against Property Section, launched an inquiry a couple of days later -- at Gray's request.

Dittman visited council offices, interviewed the clerical staff and took a look at the cabinet that holds the correspondence of council members in color-coded files separated by metal plates into one slot per member.

Simple misfiling

Dittman's conclusion? The case amounted to nothing more than simple misfiling by a member of the clerical staff.

"Corporal Dittman does not believe that any criminal misconduct has occurred concerning the files and the file folders mentioned in this report," concludes the report, released Friday.

State's Attorney Marna McLendon, contacted by Dittman last week, agreed.

So case closed? Wrong.

After the report became public Friday, Gray accepted that no crime had occurred. But that did not stop him from renewing his charge that Emery -- on Drown's orders -- stole Gray's letters and gave them to The Sun without following proper procedures for releasing public information.

"I have a grave concern. It involves a matter of trust with the custodian of those records," Gray said. "My question always was how my folder got in his [Drown's] box. I never thought there was criminal action."

Then why call in the police when Emery had said all along that the folder was simply misfiled? "If there's a fox in the henhouse," Gray said, "do you ask him to do an investigation to see what happened?"

Emery wasted no time firing back a statement that he had prepared before the report's release.

"The allegations were totally irrational," he said. "This caused disruption to our operation and embarrassed our employees. I'm sorry to see valuable police resources and taxpayers' money wasted on something so absurd."

'Trying to deflect criticism'

Drown, by telephone from New Hampshire, where he is on vacation, was no kinder. "That is patently absurd. [Gray] is reaching for straws.

"It borders on ludicrous," Drown added. "It's too bad Mr. Gray has to reach for something like that because he knows it's not true. He's just trying to deflect criticism from the couple of problems he's had lately."

The police may have come and gone, but the feud goes on.

Pub Date: 8/05/96

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