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Martin O'Malley furniture flap harks back to famous dispute

Martin O'Malley furniture flap harks back to famous dispute
Governor's mansion in Annapolis (JED KIRSCHBAUM / Baltimore Sun)

The ethical questions about former Gov. Martin O'Malley's purchase of 54 furnishings from the governor's mansion as he was leaving office is not the first controversy involving Government House furniture.

When former Gov. Marvin Mandel and his wife, Jeanne Dorsey, left the mansion in 1979, he famously took nearly all of its furniture, liquor and other supplies. An infuriated Gov. Harry Hughes demanded an investigation. Then-Attorney General Stephen M. Sachs filed a civil lawsuit against Mandel that dragged on for years before Mandel agreed in a settlement to return many items and pay the state $10,000.

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But that didn't end the matter. In January, O'Malley wrote to Mandel, saying that two historic door panels were still in his possession and asking him to donate them to the mansion. The Jan. 13 letter, obtained by The Sun through a public records request, displays O'Malley's fondness for the house.

"As Katie and I spend our last few days as residents of Government House, we appreciate more than ever the history and beauty of this house and the many contributions of previous families who have had the honor to live here," O'Malley, who is now a Democratic candidate for president.

Mandel, who died on Aug. 30 at age 95, had said in an interview that he had no knowledge of the items O'Malley asked about. His stepson, Paul B. Dorsey, who handles the former governor's mail, said that he never saw a letter from O'Malley and that he also was not sure what O'Malley wanted.

"When I went through the house the other day, I did not see anything that looked like that," Dorsey said in a recent email.

Mandel served as governor from 1969 to 1979. He was widely recognized for creating the governor's Cabinet and investing billions in public schools and transportation. But his legacy was tarnished by a 1977 conviction on mail fraud and racketeering charges. He spent 19 months in federal prison before his sentence was commuted, and after a long legal battle, the conviction was thrown out.

For Sachs, O'Malley's tact and apparent lack of irony was just too much — he burst out laughing on the phone when he heard how O'Malley characterized Mandel's interest in the mansion's furnishings.

"Yeah, they were so interested they took a bunch of stuff with them," Sachs said. "They took stuff that didn't belong to them."

Sachs and one of his top deputies, Charlie Monk, fought Mandel from 1979 to 1983 for the return of various items, including 350 bottles of liquor and wine, and 57 pieces of furniture that included Waterford lamps, Chippendale chairs and Lenox china.

An assistant attorney general recently sought a state ethics commission ruling on the purchase of mansion furniture by O'Malley and his wife, who paid $9,638 for armoires, tables and other items that originally cost taxpayers $62,000. O'Malley, through a spokesman, has defended the deal, saying he followed procedures set by a state agency and that the items from the residential section of the mansion were declared junk before being sold.

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