Martin O'Malley Caught Up in Furniture Controversy
By Doug Donovan
The Anne Arundel County state's attorney is investigating former Gov. Martin O'Malley's discounted, tax-free purchase last year of taxpayer-owned furniture from the governor's mansion in Annapolis.
The probe began shortly after a Baltimore Sun investigation found in September that the Democratic presidential candidate paid $9,638 for 54 mansion furnishings that originally cost taxpayers $62,000. The discounted sale was authorized by outgoing O'Malley administration officials after each item had been classified as "junk."
Most of the furnishings now adorn the O'Malley's $549,000 home in Baltimore's Homeland neighborhood.
O'Malley officials and state Democrats said Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Wes Adams' investigation is politically motivated.
"This is a bogus political attack that the Maryland Republicans have tried to make stick, and it's sad that they're wasting taxpayer resources on it," O'Malley campaign spokeswoman Haley Morris said in an email.
In mid-October, Maryland Department of General Services Secretary C. Gail Bassette sent "all of the information" about the sale to Adams, according to a copy of an email obtained by The Sun through a public records request.
"As the Department of General Services lacks the investigational abilities, this information is provided for your review in connection with any wrong doing," Bassette wrote to Adams.
A spokeswoman for Adams said the Republican prosecutor, who took office last year as O'Malley was leaving office, declined to comment on the probe, saying he is prohibited by policy from commenting on "any matter under investigation."
When asked about alleged political motives, Heather Epkins, Adams' communications director, said that office is legally obligated to investigate the claims.
"Our office performs due diligence on any complaint given to us," Epkins said. "We don't have the option of picking and choosing."
The Department of General Services approved the sale to O'Malley last January despite a policy that forbids private sales of state property to government officials, The Sun found. The agency also did not follow its rule requiring it to solicit bids for such items and did not charge mandated sales tax on the transaction.
Shortly after The Sun investigation, Gov. Larry Hogan ordered the agency to conduct an internal review of policies that allowed the purchase. The Republican governor accused O'Malley of "misleading" Marylanders about the removal of the furnishings, saying the former governor never told him about plans to take items with him when he moved out of the mansion last year on Jan. 15.
O'Malley officials have said that the former governor and his wife, Baltimore District Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley, who together earned $270,000 in state salaries in 2014, complied with the agency's procedures.
Patrick Murray, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, said Adams has placed politics over prosecuting crimes since taking office. Murray also took issue with Adams replacing several top prosecutors who had worked for his Democratic predecessor and hiring his campaign consultant as an assistant prosecutor.
"When Wes Adams hired a political consultant as his highest-paid assistant state's attorney, he signals to everyone that he prioritizes politics and headlines over dealing with homicides, violent crime and the heroin addiction crisis in Anne Arundel County," Murray said. "It's extremely disappointing to see the state's attorney prioritize politics over public safety."
Maryland Republican Party Executive Director Joe Cluster said there is "merit" to the investigation given how many policies were ignored to sell O'Malley "junk" furniture that is now used in his home.
"Stuff was taken from the government. We need to know if it was taken illegally," Cluster said. "Everything is political to them until they do it."
O'Malley, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, has declined to be interviewed about the purchases. His representatives have said state officials had authorized the furniture to be thrown away before O'Malley agreed to buy them.
The prohibition against preferential sales -- transactions made without publicly soliciting other bids -- applies to all surplus state property, even items declared junk. In addition, state ethics rules and the standards of conduct for executive branch employees forbid state officials from making transactions that involved information unavailable to the public.
The furniture was used in the residential sections of the governor's mansion -- not the public areas, which are decorated with antiques. When Hogan moved into the mansion last January with his wife from their Anne Arundel County home, the couple found the mansion starkly less furnished than when they had toured with O'Malley two weeks earlier. Hogan ended up moving in nearly all of his furniture from his Edgewater house.
O'Malley's former chief of staff, John Griffin, previously told The Sun that O'Malley asked to buy the furniture only after the state declared it surplus and junk. That declaration took place on the day the O'Malleys moved out of the mansion, records indicate.
Griffin said he was not aware of Adams' investigation. "This is the first I'm hearing of it," he said Thursday.
Two former prosecutors said a state's attorney investigation into property transactions might focus on theft or misappropriation of state funds and property.
Former Attorney General Douglas Gansler, who also was Montgomery County's prosecutor, said Adams has jurisdiction to investigate potential criminal activity in Anne Arundel County.
Kurt Nachtman, a former Baltimore prosecutor, said it is difficult to determine what such an investigation is looking for because "the whole process is secret."
"They'll be focusing on emails and written correspondence prior to the sale," Nachtman said.
The Sun investigation examined multiple emails and dozens of documents detailing the transaction.
Samuel L. Cook, the former director of the Annapolis Capital Complex, devised the depreciation formula that was used to determine the prices the O'Malleys paid for the furniture. Cook, who left shortly after Hogan took office, said the process of declaring property as excess and ordering its disposal typically takes several days or weeks.
For the O'Malleys it took one day. Records show that the process to declare the furniture as surplus, judge its condition and issue a separate disposal order took place on Jan. 15 -- the day the O'Malleys moved out of the mansion.
All 54 items were formally declared "unserviceable," according to the "excess property declaration" forms filed that day by the Department of General Services. The declaration resulted in excess-property disposal orders on the same day, stating that all the items could be disposed of "as junk." Other options for describing the furniture included "good, fair and poor."
The state's inventory control manual does not provide a process for valuing property declared junk.
The first lady signed the $9,638 check from the O'Malleys' joint bank account on Jan. 17, when her husband was still governor. He left office Jan. 21.
(c)2016 The Baltimore Sun