Merdon letter raises concern

Using his official title and a replica of the county seal, Howard County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon is soliciting campaign contributions from liquor license holders based on his leadership role on the county's liquor board.

In a letter to 250 licensees describing his six years as either chairman or vice chairman of the regulatory board, Merdon stressed his role as an advocate for the industry, adding that he's "always acted in a judicious manner." He then asked for donations ranging from $100 to $4,000 for a golf fund-raiser he dubbed "the first Merdon Invitational Golf Tournament" on Wednesday at the Waverly Woods golf course.


In the letter, dated Aug. 25, Merdon also mentioned the board's power to impose punishment.

"Occasionally, the board is required to sanction those who violate the laws that govern your business," Merdon, a likely candidate for county executive in 2006, wrote. Later, he said, "I ask that you seriously consider becoming a sponsor for this upcoming event."


Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, defends his letter as no different from asking Comcast Cablevision or county developers for donations - the County Council also regulates both of those groups. But James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said he sees things differently.

"It's using the power of his office to squeeze money out of liquor stores," Browning said, adding that "the use of the seal is potentially intimidating. It could be seen as a shakedown and as a kind of tax being levied by the government. The whole letter makes it seem like he's going to keep track of who's being naughty and who is being nice."

Ethics laws unspecific

County ethics laws don't speak directly to political fund-raising tactics, although one provision does make it illegal for county officials or employees to "intentionally use the prestige of their office for their own gain or that of another."

Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat also expected to run for county executive, said he was troubled by use of the county seal on the letter, which is labeled at the bottom: "Authority: Committee to Elect Chris Merdon, Colleen West, Treasurer."

"The use of the seal, I think, is something that obviously we're going to have to look into. I don't think we should be using the seal for fund raising at all."

Councilman David A. Rakes, an East Columbia Democrat who is now the liquor board chairman, said he doesn't fault Merdon but would not use a similar letter himself.

"I wouldn't do that. I think it would give perhaps a misperception of the role that we play in terms of regulating alcohol," said Rakes, who is planning a traditional social fund-raiser Oct. 20 at a Columbia hotel, with tickets ranging from $50 to $500.


Edward Connelly, owner of Jason's Liquors in the 9300 block of Baltimore National Pike, said he got a letter and gave $100 but was not intimidated.

Other panel hears cases

Most liquor cases go before another panel, the appointed Alcoholic Beverage Hearing Board, he said, with only a few cases being heard by the council members sitting as the ultimate liquor regulatory body.

"There's nobody else down there that is an advocate as much as he is," Connelly said.

Jordan Naftal, owner of Jordan's Steakhouse in Ellicott City and chairman of the Howard County Restaurant Owners' Association, said he also gave $100 and hasn't heard any grumbling among his members.

"I thought it was an opportunity to give back to someone who gives to the community," Naftal said.


Issue of 'appearance'

But another license holder, who refused to be identified for fear of retribution, said he did feel intimidated.

"It all boils down to appearance. Are you using your position to solicit?" he said.

Merdon said he expects to sell out the event with 120 golfers, and hopes to clear about $40,000. He said he contacted virtually everyone he's come in contact with over the last several years, asking for donations.

"It doesn't say, 'If you don't support me something can happen to you.' It says, 'I've been an advocate for your business. I ask for your support,'" Merdon said, adding that his campaign, not the county, paid for the letter.

"It's a board, not a single person, who is making a decision," he said. "We regulate Comcast. Comcast contributes to all of us. We regulate the development industry. Developers give to all of us."