Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. placed former Gov. Marvin Mandel and a prominent Republican fund-raiser on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents yesterday, laying his first imprint on a panel frequently criticized for being heavy with political appointees and thin on higher education experience.
Mandel and businessman Richard E. Hug were among four regents appointments announced by the governor yesterday. The others are Robert L. Pevenstein, president of a Timonium mergers and acquisitions firm, and Robert L. Mitchell, chairman of a Bethesda homebuilding company.
"The common denominator here is a love of the system, a love of the state and a business expertise they are going to bring to the board," Ehrlich said.
But the selection of Mandel, 81, who was convicted in 1977 on charges that he pushed legislation to benefit friends who had given him hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and bribes, raised concerns among ethics experts, who said Ehrlich could have made a better choice.
Though his conviction was overturned a decade later, Mandel remains a polarizing figure - lauded by those who remember his management and political skills, dismissed by others who hope that the state's history of back-scratching machine politics has ended.
"If you want to pick someone who's been in government before to elevate to a regent, it seems like you should find someone without a criminal record," said Bill Allison, a spokesman for the Center for Public Integrity in Washington. "There are plenty of people who serve in government honorably who are never accused of anything, who never commit any offense."
Mark C. Medairy Jr., a former chairman of the Maryland Ethics Commission, called the Mandel selection "real disappointing."
"It's rather surprising to me, because I know that Governor Ehrlich campaigned on a platform of cleaning up state government," Medairy said. "It looks to me that Governor Ehrlich is just replicating what Gov. [Parris N.] Glendening had done. It's rather disturbing, because the Board of Regents has had some controversial times in recent months."
Ehrlich dismissed those concerns, calling Mandel an elder statesman who deserves respect.
"That's 30 years ago," he said of Mandel's alleged misdeeds. "I think he's gotten past it. I think the people have gotten past it."
The governor said Mandel, a Democrat, would take the spot of Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat. Hoyer and university system Chancellor William E. "Brit" Kirwan endorsed the appointment, Ehrlich said.
Hoyer had said that he did not want to be reappointed to the unpaid position, which carries with it the prestige of managing the system's 13 institutions and attending high-profile sporting events.
"I wanted a prominent Democrat," said Ehrlich, a Republican. "Steny thought it fit, Brit thought it fit, and that was good enough for me."
Mandel, a 1942 graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law and a former president of the Terrapin Club, said yesterday that he considers the appointment an honor, one he had desired for decades.
"This is something I always dreamed about," he said. "When I was governor, I would have appointed myself, if I could have."
The board has generated headlines in recent years. Glendening was accused of packing it with allies who had little background in education.
One of Glendening's appointees and friends, Lance W. Billingsley, was negotiating in 2000 for a vice chancellor position that would have paid nearly $200,000 a year, but withdrew his name after criticism from colleagues.
A year later, Glendening was working behind the scenes to have the regents - all of whom he appointed - name him chancellor of the system, with a $375,000 salary. Glendening, too, withdrew after donors, including Hug, threatened to withhold contributions.
Another Glendening appointee, Nathan A. Chapman Jr., resigned as chairman under a cloud of allegations about his stock dealings with the state pension system. Chapman remains on the board.
The board became an issue in the gubernatorial campaign when former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said she would change the way members are appointed, saying that political nominations by Glendening contributed to a "culture of corruption" in Annapolis.
At the time, Ehrlich said through a spokesman that no such change was needed. "It's real simple," said aide Paul E. Schurick. "Just do the right thing."
Mandel's troubles lasted more than a decade. Convicted in 1977, he was sentenced to four years in jail and suspended from practicing law. He served 19 months, until his sentence was commuted by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Six years later his conviction was overturned.
"I think most people would want someone who made a mistake to have a second chance," said Paul J. Quirk, an ethics expert with the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs. "And there's nothing about a university that makes it an especially dangerous place to give someone a second chance. Usually, the trustees have little or nothing to do with particular contracts and hiring and firing individuals."
"I think he has paid whatever debt is due to society and that the appointment ought to be judged on his merits. And I think he is eminently qualified," said Donald B. Robertson, a former majority leader in the House of Delegates who headed a commission on lobbyist ethics from 1999 to 2000.
The Mandel selection is not the only one with heavy political overtones.
Hug, 68, played a leading role in helping Ehrlich raise more than $10 million for his election bid and had long been rumored to get the regents post. He noted yesterday that he has served on two other university boards and was a trustee emeritus at the Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, and at Loyola College in Maryland.
Pevenstein, 56, is a longtime Ehrlich family friend. His wife, Elaine, was a manager of Ehrlich's campaign and helped coordinate his inaugural festivities. He taught accounting at the University of Maryland, College Park from 1976 to 1984.
Mitchell received a civil engineering degree from College Park and was president of the Terrapin Club in 1997.
While all four nominees are white males, Ehrlich aides and supporters said gender and racial diversity could be reflected in future appointments.
"We have other appointments that will be made to the board," said Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.
Sun staff writers Alec MacGillis and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.