Just days before the city's mayoral primary, thousands of racist leaflets began appearing on the street corners of Baltimore exhorting white voters to support the candidacy of City Councilman Martin O'Malley to save the city from "Blacks and Jews."
Attached to each handout is a letter signed by Robert L. Clay Sr., an African-American businessman who claims to have intercepted the hate-filled diatribe purportedly from a group calling itself the Aryan Blood Brotherhood.
"I'm not necessarily interested in tarnishing anyone's candidacy," said Clay, who paid to duplicate and distribute thousands of copies of the letter.
"I found it so offensive that I felt compelled to bring it to the public's attention."
Thus have Clay, 53, and the Rev. Daki Napata -- a local Baptist minister who helped reproduce the leaflets -- become uninvited participants in Baltimore's election campaign.
Even in the rough-and-tumble world of Baltimore street politics, the 11th-hour leafletting has been seen as a not-so-subtle attempt to undermine O'Malley's support among African-American voters in Tuesday's Democratic primary.
Clay's motivations aside, virtually everyone has denounced the effort.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke called the propaganda "destructive to this community" in announcing Thursday that he had fired Napata from his city job.
Napata, 48, a longtime civil rights activist who first sought Clay's help in copying the racist material last week, had been on the mayor's staff.
City Council President and mayoral candidate Lawrence A. Bell III -- who has received more than $6,000 in contributions from Clay in recent years -- disavowed him as a "free spirit" acting on his own.
Clay added in an interview that he has since been told by Bell campaign officials "not to come by anymore."
"He's obviously upset with me right now," Clay said yesterday.
Man with much at stake
But public records and interviews reveal that Clay is anything but a minor political player. Rather, he has quietly bankrolled a generation of Democratic candidates while reaping millions in city, state and federal construction contracts.
In the process, he became a behind-the-scenes force in Baltimore's power structure over the past decade -- and a man with much at stake in next week's election.
He was an obvious person for Napata to seek out when he came into possession of the incendiary hate letter last week. A well-known gadfly and demonstrator, Napata needed Clay's resources to guarantee the widest possible circulation.
An early and generous backer of Schmoke, Clay has been among Bell's largest contributors and has poured $26,000 into the coffers of the Democratic National Committee in the past few years, records show.
Reveling in his political clout, he once boasted in a court case, "When I call, I will get return calls."
Among his friends, he counts attorney and Baltimore County school board member Robert F. Dashiell, firebrand criminal lawyer William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr. and Julius Henson, who was fired from the Bell campaign a few weeks ago for disrupting an O'Malley rally.
Bell campaign officials said their candidate would not comment further on Clay's activities, adding that Bell has "appropriately distanced himself" from Clay.
"This goes against everything Lawrence Bell stands for," said campaign chairwoman Tammy Hawley. "Absolutely, we're offended by his actions.
"There's no secret that Mr. Clay has been a substantial supporter over the years, but it would be safe to say that the relationship is now strained."
'He's never been subtle'
Still, Clay soldiered on yesterday -- seemingly impervious to the condemnation raining in from all sides -- content to answer critics with: "I gotta do what I gotta do."
"If you figure him out, let me know -- then call his wife," said Dashiell. "I doubt even she could tell you what motivates him sometimes. He makes up his mind as to what he believes, and when he does, well, that's about the end of the story.
"He's never been subtle."
Said Murphy: "Robert Clay is one of the most honest, hard-working, capable and intelligent people I've ever met. He has the courage of his convictions, and because of that, he often gets involved in conflict. He will go to the mat on questions of principle."
From the ground up
The son of a struggling Howard County backhoe operator, Clay began his career digging ditches and made his fortune from holes in the ground.
The story of his rise touches on a diverse array of ventures -- including a 32nd Street nightclub, a vitamin and cosmetics franchise, arcade games, sewage and a Nigerian oil refinery deal that resulted in one of many legal claims against him over the years.
Fast-talking, impatient and ambitious, he founded Robert Clay Inc. excavators in 1968 and reaped the benefits of minority-participation requirements for federal contractors that took hold in the mid-1970s.
"The evolution of Bob Clay from a small earth-moving contractor out in Columbia to a major minority businessman with offices in downtown Baltimore tracks pretty closely along with the advent of Maryland's fairness-in-public contracting laws," said Dashiell.
"It didn't hurt that he was also a smart and aggressive businessman."
"He was intelligent and had management capabilities and was pulling himself up," recalls Mort Diamond, a former official with the Small Business Administration who certified Clay to participate in federal construction projects.
Soon, his small construction company had 25 employees and was winning contracts to help build facilities for the Veterans Administration, the Social Security Administration, the Central Intelligence Agency and the city of Baltimore.
But Clay has also been dogged by controversy in his personal, business and political dealings.
In 1976, police guards had to be posted around one of his excavation projects -- for the $93 million downtown Social Security complex on West Saratoga Street -- because of picketing and threats of violence by labor unions complaining that he paid substandard wages.
At one point, a protester tried to choke him with his own tie.
But he found real power a year later when he established what would become an influential black business organization.
In his post as president of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association, Clay gathered political support from the likes of Democratic U.S. Rep. Parren J. Mitchell of Maryland and parlayed his role as the voice of disenfranchised black tradesmen into a high-flying business empire.
Lucrative subcontract work
In one two-year stretch, his company was selected as a minority subcontractor on the city subway and Fort McHenry Tunnel projects, pulling in $15 million in business. Gone were the dirty overalls and work boots of his younger years, as Clay indulged a taste for tailored suits and Mercedes-Benzes.
But his troubles were far from over.
In May 1976, he had been charged by Howard County police with allegedly shooting an insurance salesman he caught visiting his estranged wife at her home in Columbia.
Charles Wilson Chester was hit in the shoulder by a shotgun blast fired through the window of his gray Cadillac. Police charged that Clay's fingerprint was found on the shotgun shell, but a jury acquitted him when a witness testified that Clay was elsewhere at the time of the shooting.
Chester, who later sued Clay and won $20,000 in damages from another jury, could not be reached for comment this week because he is serving a federal prison term for bank robbery.
Clay says he had nothing to do with the shooting -- "absolutely not" -- adding that he didn't dispute the $20,000 civil verdict because "it would cost more to appeal it than it would to just leave it alone."
Clay and his brother were also charged in a 1980 shooting that left one man dead and another critically wounded in the driveway of his home in the High Ridge Park area of Laurel.
Police characterized the shooting as the result of a dispute between neighbors that culminated in a Palm Sunday showdown outside Clay's home.
Killed in the incident was 21-year-old George Webb, a relative of Clay's next-door neighbor who accompanied a group of men who marched onto Clay's property to settle the feud. Both the Webbs and the Clays later contended that the other side drew first.
"When I asked the men to leave my property immediately, one of them pulled a gun and aimed it at me," Clay later said in a written statement.
"At this time, I ran for cover. The man with the gun started to fire, at which point my brother returned fire in self-defense."
Charged with murder, the Clays were awaiting trial when a key witness changed his story and said the other side fired the first shot. Howard County prosecutors dropped their case against the Clay brothers.
No other charges were brought.
For more than a decade, creditors pursued Clay -- even as he was cultivating powerful friends and positioning his company as a government contractor of choice.
By 1984, Clay had opened one of his many side businesses on Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore, an amusement arcade dubbed Playworld.
His partner was Dashiell, then a rising young associate at the law firm of Shapiro & Olander, the home base of political insider Larry Gibson, who was busy orchestrating the rise of another young lawyer to the mayor's office -- then-State's Attorney Kurt L. Schmoke.
The association would pay off over the years for Dashiell, who soon developed a side practice representing contractors and business owners in their dealings with City Hall. He was also the attorney for the Maryland Minority Contractors Association.
Playworld, however, was destined to be a bust.
Just two years after they opened the arcade, Clay and Dashiell sold the financially strapped business and walked away from a $12,707 debt they owed to a Columbia vending company that had leased coin-operated games for the arcade, court records show.
The debt was not repaid until years later, when the company sought to garnishee their bank accounts.
Nightclub for friends
By then, Clay was back in the entertainment business as the proprietor of 32nd Street Plaza, a two-story nightclub off Greenmount Avenue that he envisioned as a watering hole for his growing roster of political friends.
His old partner Dashiell served as the club's lawyer, drawing up the incorporation papers. Soon, business was booming.
"It had a very, very high reputation," Clay later said in court testimony. "In fact, many leading politicians and leading civil members attended quite regularly. I've been able to really capitalize on those relationships, and it has benefited me in most areas that I'm involved in."
Court orders to pay
Still, creditors continued to call.
In 1995, he was ordered to pay back $150,000 by a federal bankruptcy judge after he sold the 32nd Street Plaza property to a Washington, D.C., investment club at what the court found was a grossly inflated price.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission found that the club was part of a massive Ponzi scheme that targeted African-American investors. While Clay was a member, he was not implicated in any wrongdoing, records show.
In 1997, he was ordered to pay a private investor $900,000 that he had borrowed to set up an overseas venture company to pursue construction contracts from the Nigerian government for an oil refinery project.
The case took five years and $135,000 in attorneys' fees to resolve, records show.
Over the past three years, the state has filed liens against Clay for failure to pay nearly $9,000 in unemployment compensation taxes -- debts that he quickly paid once the liens were filed.
But even as material success transformed him into a man of means, his confrontational style earned him more than a few enemies. And by the mid-1990s, friends and foes agree, his political clout had begun to wane.
Some unwise choices
Echoing other observers, former state Sen. Larry Young said Clay placed some bad political bets -- not the least of which was turning on his old friend Schmoke and backing his opponent Mary Pat Clarke in the 1995 mayoral race.
Clay also saw his influence wane in the contractors association when a generation of young leaders ascended to power, easing him out of his familiar bully pulpit and prompting Clay to form a rival organization called the Maryland Metropolitan Minority Contractors Association.
"He's more independent now," Young said. "He probably has more resources financially than before, but he is picking and choosing his fights."
Clay has also left more than a few smoldering bridges behind him.
In 1994, he used some $100,000 of his own money to launch what would become a bitter and divisive campaign for a House of Delegates seat in the 40th Legislative District -- taking on a ticket of incumbent party stalwarts that included Tony E. Fulton, Salima S. Marriott and Howard P. Rawlings.
The gloves came off late in the game when the incumbents produced a flaming red broadside bearing the headline "VOTER ALERT!" and calling Clay a "Deadbeat Dad, a Carpetbagger and an Indicted Murderer."
Clay supporters retaliated with a leaflet suggesting that Rawlings was a child molester.
"It was a gross allegation, out of thin air," Rawlings says today. "What we said about him was true, all based on public records. If anybody should have been sued for slander, it was him."
Instead, it was Clay who sued.
After coming in a distant fourth in the race, he sought to have the election overturned in Circuit Court -- only to lose his case and wind up paying $15,372.39 in legal fees to his opponents.
Today, he denies ever calling Rawlings a child molester, saying: "That's not true. That's not true at all. I'll sue anybody who says I said that."
Replied Rawlings: "I never accused him of saying it or writing it. I accused him of distributing it, which is exactly what he's doing now. The good thing about this situation is that Martin O'Malley at least has enough time to fight back -- and there's no such thing as the Aryan Brotherhood."
No trace of organization
Police say that appears to be the case.
Baltimore County police investigators say there is no indication that a group called the Aryan Blood Brotherhood exists -- in Maryland or anywhere else.
"We do track the movement of hate groups, and we are unaware of any organization calling itself the Aryan Blood Brotherhood," said police spokesman Bill Toohey.
The logo atop the letter, depicting a circle in a cross surrounded by the words "White Pride World Wide," is one that county police hate-crime experts recognize as being used by two unrelated white racist groups, Toohey said. But neither of the groups has used the name Aryan Blood Brotherhood.
Search of the Internet
Hundreds of hate groups large and small have found a platform for their racist views on the Internet. But a search for "Aryan Blood Brotherhood" on a dozen major search engines does not reveal Web pages or references to any such group.
The organization with the closest-sounding name is "the African Blood Brotherhood." Formed in 1920 by Caribbean activist Cyril V. Briggs, it advocated black revolution throughout the world.
Clay conceded that he did no such research last week when Napata approached him with a letter that he claimed was from a white supremacy group. Clay recalled Napata telling him that the flier was being mailed to white voters encouraging them to vote for O'Malley.
"The Blacks and Jews have destroyed our schools and let criminals take over our streets," the letter said.
Flier filled with hate
The flier first appeared in several mailboxes in North Baltimore neighborhoods such as Guilford, Hamilton and Charles Village in the middle of August. For weeks, copies circulated throughout political circles and city offices.
Napata, then a member of Schmoke's staff detailed to the federal empowerment zone three years ago, says he obtained a copy in late August.
One of nine children raised in Baltimore by a mother who still lives in McCulloh Homes, Napata has spent the better part of his life as a civil rights activist without portfolio, taking photographs, protesting and speaking around the country.
'A mystical side to me'
His one-man picket has become a familiar sight outside the Sun building on Calvert Street in recent days.
"My life has been full of the need to do something about injustice," Napata said Thursday. "Despite what has happened to me, I love peace. There is a solitary side, there is a mystical side to me."
Napata, of Union Baptist Church in the city, maintains he was determined from the moment he saw the letter to publicize it. So he contacted Clay, a kindred spirit and longtime friend with the financial wherewithal to help give the letter the broadest circulation.
According to a police report, the two men walked into the Office Depot in Catonsville on Sept. 2 and asked for 2,000 copies of the letter. After picking those up, they asked for 1,000 more. Disturbed by the hate-filled contents, two African-American clerks at the store called Baltimore County police.
Within hours, Clay's and Napata's trip to the copy store was news -- and they have been explaining their actions ever since.
Question of authenticity
Both men say they are convinced the letter is genuine, despite repeated suggestions that it might have been written by someone trying to sabotage the O'Malley campaign.
"I thought that this language being distributed in the white community at the very least ought to be made aware to other people who had not seen it," Clay said.
"Was it a mistake? No. It was brought to me as a piece of information that was disseminated in the white community, and I believed that to be the case.
"If it was something that I thought was wrong, I'd say, 'Wait a minute, let's go to my office and do it.' But that wasn't the case. I assumed it was accurate. That's why I acted on it."
Asked why he continues to distribute the letter in the face of near-universal condemnation from friend and foe, a weary Clay said, "That's why it's important to let people know my side of the story of what happened because now they're confused."