A furniture feud is brewing in Maryland. Governor Larry Hogan blasts former governor Martin O'Malley for buying fancy furniture from the governor's mansion at a deep discount.
When Martin O'Malley left the governor's mansion in January, he and his wife were allowed to buy for $9,638 dozens of pieces of furniture the taxpayers had spent $62,000 to purchase, most of it eight years earlier, on the grounds that it was "junk" that would otherwise have been thrown away. Those involved in engineering that arrangement insist that it was entirely above board and represented a good deal for the public. We have a hard time buying either assertion, and the fact that former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his family evidently did the same thing to a lesser extent doesn't make it any better. If this is how business has been conducted by the state, it needs to change.
Maryland has rules about how to sell publicly owned property, and one of them forbids preferential sales to government officials. A sale to the outgoing governor without an appraisal or notice — much less any opportunity for other members of the public to bid on the items — would certainly seem to fit that definition. Indeed, it is in some ways reminiscent of an attempt by the Ehrlich administration to sell a piece of park land to an anonymous "benefactor" (later identified as the now deceased developer Willard Hackerman) with no appraisal or opportunity for bidding — which Mr. O'Malley criticized as an "under the table" deal.
Then again, maybe that deal was better — it went before the Board of Public Works, where public scrutiny eventually killed it, and Hackerman was at least willing to reimburse the state for its entire purchase price on the property. The O'Malleys, by contrast, benefited from some quick, generous and rather unscientific calculations on the depreciation of furniture.
The Sun's Doug Donovan reported Saturday that the official from the Department of General Services who was in charge of determining whether the pieces could be declared surplus and setting prices for them, Samuel L. Cook, evidently sped along a process that can take weeks into one day — Jan. 15, the day the former first family moved out of Government House. He did not start, as one might expect he would, by asking the soon-to-be occupant of the mansion, then-Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, whether he wanted any of the furniture. Rather, he operated on the arbitrary assumption that all items of furnishing — whether a mirror hanging on the wall or a couch in a kids' playroom — have a useful life of 10 years and at that point should be thrown away.
(The facts that some of the items the O'Malley's wanted to purchase had somehow managed to survive 20 years or more, or that one of the items in question, a file cabinet, was less than a year old, appear not to have fazed him.)
Mr. Cook generally discounted the value of each item by 10 percent for every year since it was purchased. Thus, anything bought for the O'Malleys when they moved in to Government House in 2007 was discounted to 20 percent of its initial price. Older items went for as little as 1 percent. Among the items purchased since 2007, Mr. Cook deviated from the formula only once, for the O'Malleys' bed, which was discounted an additional $100 because it was damaged.
The state needs to do better than a back-of-the-envelope calculation when it sells property we all paid for. Whether it's a piece of publicly owned parkland or a TV in the governor's mansion exercise room, the state needs at least an appraisal and preferably a public auction to determine an item's true value.
Gov. Larry Hogan — who was surprised when he moved in to discover that the private quarters of the mansion looked like Cindy Lou Who's house after the Grinch swept through — appears to be taking the situation with good humor. He posted Sunday on Facebook, "If they call that expensive, beautiful, barely used furniture 'junk,' I'd hate to hear what they call the 20 year old stuff I brought with me from my house to replace it all." He added later: "None of it would have been 'thrown out,' or surplussed, or sold in any manner. Had it not all been removed a few days before we moved in, our intention would have been to leave all of it in place, just as it was, in the people's house."
The matter bears more investigation. The Department of General Services was right to refer the matter to the assistant attorney general assigned to the agency, and he was right to ask the state Ethics Commission for a ruling.
If the commission somehow agrees with Mr. O'Malley's defenders that a state regulation governing the disposal of public property to other governmental agencies or non-profits applies here, the legislature needs to step in. Maryland pays its governors reasonably well (the state's chief executive is tied for 13th highest paid, according to the Council of State Governments) and provides them with room, board and transportation. We don't need to be offering them lavish parting gifts as well.