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A culture of ‘soft corruption’ in Baltimore County | GUEST COMMENTARY

David Cordish's estate is seen along Greenspring Valley Drive in Baltimore County where the wealthy developer Cordish had plans to build a indoor tennis barn.
David Cordish's estate is seen along Greenspring Valley Drive in Baltimore County where the wealthy developer Cordish had plans to build a indoor tennis barn. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Newspaper stories involving criminal conduct like the Healthy Holly scandal in Baltimore City grab headlines and win Pulitzer Prizes. Equally important, however, are stories like the one describing how top aides to Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. intervened on behalf of developer David Cordish to get a permit issued for a “tennis barn” next to his Greenspring Valley house. This occurred without an administrative hearing and over the objections of the county’s professional staff.

Corruption of a criminal nature by public officials harms local governments. A culture of “soft corruption” can do just as much damage, if not more.

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In his book, “Soft Corruption: How Unethical Conduct Undermines Good Government and What to Do About It,” author and former New Jersey legislator William Schluter says that soft corruption occurs “when people who hold public office figure out how to game the system in ways that enrich them and their cronies without breaking the law.” It includes actions motivated by a desire to accrue political power or personal benefit rather than to faithfully administer the law.

The conduct by Baltimore County officials is under investigation by the county’s inspector general, and some of it may turn out to be illegal. At the very least it is a classic case of soft corruption.

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According to The Sun, Mr. Cordish was in a hurry to complete the barn before winter and did not want to go through the time-consuming process of seeking a variance from limits on the size of accessory buildings. The proposed facility, at 18,000 square feet and 35 feet tall, was much larger than his house.

The variance process includes a hearing affording neighbors the opportunity to be heard on the proposed structure. When Mr. Cordish protested, Deputy County Administrative Officer Drew Vetter, head of the Office of Criminal Justice under former Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh, went to work to reverse the decision by career plan reviewers in the Department of Permits, Inspections and Approvals (PAI) on the need for a variance.

The back-and-forth generated numerous documents. Mr. Vetter complained at one point that it was consuming a lot of his time. A senior advisor to Mr. Olszewski listed it on her to-do list as her No. 3 priority for the week of Nov. 30, 2020, presumably reflecting the importance of protecting Mr. Cordish from the elements while playing tennis.

Nevertheless, Mr. Olszewski denied that his staff gave Mr. Cordish preferential treatment by greenlighting the project over the objections of the former director of PAI, Michael Mallinoff. Who do you think you’re kidding, Mr. Olszewski?

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The barn was never built. Even if it had been, bending the rules for a tennis barn is relatively inconsequential. The undue influence of builders and developers on a wide variety of land use issues in the county, including zoning and development review, is not. Mr. Mallinoff lamented in one email that he had to “continually address special arrangements for certain people. Every week.”

The culture of soft corruption skews decisions by the County Council ranging from comprehensive zoning to planned unit developments. It gave rise to the controversial practice of legislatively “spot zoning” specific parcels of land. Because other councilmembers almost always defer to the wishes of the member in whose district a parcel is located, the practice puts an inordinate amount of power in the hands of individual councilmembers and creates bountiful opportunities for influence peddling.

The favored treatment by county agencies has resulted in development overwhelming public facilities, including streets, stormwater management facilities, sewers and schools. For example, open space requirements often are sacrificed to maximize profits from development, leaving many communities with inadequate green space.

The imposition of development impact fees was delayed for decades because of resistance by builders and developers. The bill adopting them in 2019 was riddled with loopholes.

The burden of funding the improvements to public facilities required to accommodate new development therefore falls on general taxpayers rather than on those who profit from it. High schools that should be replaced only get remodeled because of fiscal constraints.

Back in the days of Baltimore County executives Spiro Agnew, convicted of tax evasion, and Dale Anderson, convicted of multiple federal crimes, the currency of corruption was cold, hard cash in the form of bribes and kickbacks. Campaign contributions are the currency of soft corruption in what former state senator and county executive candidate Jim Brochin called the county’s “pay to play” system.

Good local journalism played its part by shining a light on the culture of soft corruption in Baltimore County. It is up to county voters to elect politicians who will change it.

David Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney in 2014. His email is dplymyer@comcast.net; Twitter: @dplymyer.

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