State and Annapolis fail to disclose Vegas trip spending by legal deadline

When it comes to responding to public information acts quickly, the state's larger jurisdictions could learn a lot from tiny Havre de Grace.

Back in May, about 40 members from the state and seven local governments attended the Global Retail Real Estate Convention in Las Vegas. With galas and events at casinos, the annual four-day conference of the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) serves as the ultimate business-government networking event with more than 20,000 in attendance.

The Sun was interested in how taxpayer money was spent at the event and, under the Maryland Public Information Act, requested receipts and expenditures for each of the Maryland delegations attending.

Seven of nine agencies responded within the 30 days allowed by law. The Sun is still waiting on a response from the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley, who sent Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown on the trip.

In all, the disclosures show at least $50,000 in taxpayer money was spent on the trip.

* Of those responses, Havre de Grace's was the quickest and among the most detailed, complete with expenditures on hotels, airfare and conference admission. 

Within two days, the town reported spending $2,600 on two attendees to the conference. (They ate, some days, for less than $10 at the salad bar of a rather inexpensive cafe.)

"This was the city's first year attending, and we see great value in being part of this event," said Meghan M. Simmons, the city's manager of economic development.

* Baltimore County responded six days after The Sun's request, reporting that County Executive Kevin Kamenetz spent about $2,000 on the trip. His hotel room at the Las Vegas Wynn cost more than $300 per night and he was reimbursed each day $48 for food.

Earlier this year, county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said Kamenetz had cut costs on the trip, deciding to travel without any staff.

"Given the current fiscal constraints County Executive Kamenetz decided to reduce costs significantly by not having any staff members accompany him," she wrote.

Council members who attended had to pay their own way, she said.

* Howard County, which responded next, reported spending $7,700 on the trip. One attendee spent $176 one night at the hotel bar on food, according to receipts. County Executive Ken Ulman and Economic Development chief Laura Neuman were forced to spend more than double the airfare of others on the trip, because they booked their flights last minute. Ulman paid $1,129 and Neuman $1,147 in airfare.

"Although Mr. Ulman and Ms. Neuman flew coach, as did the other employees, their air fare was significantly higher due to their last minute reservations," said Jeryl Beth Baker, marketing manager for the Howard County Economic Development Authority. "The delay in making their reservations was necessitated by their need to make certain that they were available as required for the County's budget approval process." 

* Harford County responded next, indicating its four representatives, including County Executive David R. Craig spent $11,600 on the trip. Receipts show Craig spent $343 on meals.

* Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development was next, indicating its two representatives, including secretary Christian S. Johansson, spent about $5,800 on the trip. Johansson was reimbursed $42 a day for food.

* Three days before the 30 day deadline, Baltimore City responded with only a small portion of the information requested. The city released documents that indicated Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and a top aide spent $380 over the course of the trip on "local transportation" and a per diem stipend. The city did not provide details regarding airfare or hotel expenses, unlike the county governments did.  The Sun has made additional requests for that information, but the city has not responded.

The City's Board of Estimates has already approved close to $10,000 for some of Baltimore's portion of the trip, but the total money spent by the nine Baltimore representatives who attended remains undisclosed. 

* Prince George's County responded a day before the state deadline, indicating their delegation of nine representatives had spent more than $10,000. One attendee spent about $100 on dinner at Vegas' Capital Grille.

* The city of Annapolis replied to the request two months late. Lara Fritts, the CEO of the Annapolis Economic Development Corp., called to decline to provide information responsive to The Sun's request. Fitts said her organization covered all of the trip's costs, including those of Annapolis Mayor Joshua J. Cohen. A recently formed non-profit, the Annapolis Development Corp. is no longer a part of city government and therefore not obligated to release its financial information, she said.

Mayors and various county executives have been attending the conference for years.

The event -- which was also attended by business leaders from the Cordish Co., H&S Bakery and General Growth Properties, among others --  featured comedian Dennis Milller and guest speaker Malcolm Gladwell (author of "Outliers," "The Tipping Point," etc.) ABC's Joan Lunden hosted a discussion between Former U.S. Senators Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Tom Daschle(D-S.D.).

Rawlings-Blake herself participated in a panel discussion entitled "America's Cities: Rebuilding, Revitalizing, Redeveloping."

In 2002, then-mayor O'Malley's delegation spent $80,000 in taxpayer funds when it set up a glossy Baltimore booth complete with Phillips crab balls and Berger Cookies in an attempt to lure developers here. In 2007, developer Patrick Turner used the event in an attempt to drum up retailers for his Westport project.