Projects are nice; but so are ethics

The Baltimore Sun

Over at Mondawmin Mall yesterday, shoppers negotiated their way through the ripped-up parking lots and blocked-off construction sites of a continuing $70 million project that promises to reverse the shopping center's long, slow decline. The talk was of things like the soon-to-open Target - no longer a big deal in the suburbs but the city's first - and the 10 for $10 "bonus buys" at the already open Shoppers Food Warehouse.

And the federal investigation of state Sen. Ulysses Currie's string-pulling on behalf of Shoppers? Not so much.

"You didn't have a supermarket in this area before," said Marsha Ann Turner, 63, a nurse who, like many of her neighbors, is just grateful for any full-service store opening in the area. "Everything is nice and clean, it's open early, it's open late. They have everything I'm looking for."

Picking up a sandwich and drink to tide her over her two jobs - tutoring nursing students at the nearby Baltimore City Community College and working at a family practitioner's office - Turner is inclined to dismiss whatever Currie might have done for Shoppers.

"It's business, it's politics," she said. "I'm just glad they're fixing the mall up."

Mondawmin does need fixing up, and for that matter, so does Uplands, the boarded-up, weed-choked apartment complex in Southwest Baltimore slated for a $200 million transformation. That these otherwise praiseworthy efforts figure in the current twin public corruption investigations of Currie, a powerful state legislator, and the city's Mayor Sheila Dixon is a troubling sidelight to the scandals.

What's troubling is that these are both the kind of projects that public officials should be pushing - simply on their merits, which are considerable, and not for their own private gain, or that of their friends or business associates. Expanding the kind of retail available in the city, and reclaiming an eyesore and turning it into decent housing, should be a win-win situation for everyone: Officials get to break ground on the kind of project that they can boast about, companies that are awarded the contracts get to rake in the big money and residents ultimately get to shop or live in nice new places.

But now, as details emerge about the two investigations, we're seeing some people want to win a little more.

Currie, as The Sun has reported, was a paid consultant to Shoppers, a fact that he failed to disclose on ethics forms, and he intervened multiple times on its behalf for items as big as public financing and as little as traffic lights. Dixon, as also reported by The Sun, supported projects that benefited a contractor, Ronald Lipscomb, with whom she had a personal relationship; the most recent development in the Dixon investigation is that the city awarded the Uplands contract to a team that included Lipscomb, even though a city panel had recommended another group.

(Tantalizingly - for any conspiracy theorists out there - there is a thread that happens to link these otherwise separate investigations: Currie was supposed to meet with Dixon and Lipscomb around the time the senator was apparently helping Shoppers on its Mondawmin project. Lipscomb's company, Doracon, ultimately got a subcontract to work on the project, although the general contractor says that was awarded through a competitive bid process.)

Until the investigations are resolved - and, of course, neither Dixon nor Currie has been charged with anything - we obviously don't know the whole picture. Still, what we've seen so far is pretty illuminating, what with public officials engaging in personal or business relationships with the very companies that are getting city contracts, or public financing or all the other set-asides and breaks that those who control our tax dollars can hand out to close a deal.

It's disturbing, even to some at Mondawmin yesterday, where the delight in a revitalized mall was tempered by what might have gone on behind the scenes.

Ralph Jefferson, a cabdriver who is loving all the fares he can pick up driving customers to and from the Shoppers, is someone looking this particular gift horse in the mouth.

"It's more business for me, and I'm thankful," said Jefferson, who grew up in the area but now lives in Randallstown. "But I'm just tired of politicians getting rich on me. Why can't they just do it the legal way - all they had to do is say something to the ethics board."

For Jefferson, it's about ethics, but also what he thinks of as the arrogance that can develop in City Hall or the State House.

"You're gonna get caught - someone down the road is going to open their mouth," Jefferson, 58, said. "They caught Spiro Agnew; what makes you think you're not going to get caught?"


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