Over two weeks ago Someone Noticed reported that the Friends of Charter of Cecil County used a “See Cecil” BRAC relocation bus tour as its largest fundraiser for financing a campaign to sway voters on a ballot question. When the story first broke, we wondered about the relationship between Economic Development and a group seeking to influence voters.
We’re still wondering about the central issue, the county’s involvement in the hand-off of the profit-making tour to a group deeply involved in a political campaign, while some other items are being cleared up. One recent question concerned the difference between the group’s late Sept. spreadsheet and the financial disclosure report as it related to the bus trip. The Board of Elections site listed $2,700 as revenue, while a Sept. spreadsheet showed $8,900 in cash receipts. According to the treasurer of the Friends, Candy Davis, all corporate donations listed in the contribution category of the formal report were for the bus tour. The state record, while showing all contributors, didn’t identify all the gifts of cash that were earmarked for the bus tour. Thus, Cecil Bank, for example, was listed as a source of a $1,000. But Clark Turner Signature Homes and five other businesses gave about $7,000, but weren’t tagged for that activity.
Commissioner Hodge responded to our query as an elected official, but we’re still waiting to hear from the President of the Board, Mr. Lockhart. Commissioner Hodge said the elected officials weren’t aware this was happening. He added the board didn’t know why this one tour suddenly became a source of profit. “I was disappointed to hear about this,” he continued. It was his preference that there was no involvement between local government and any group trying to influence a campaign Once we hear from the President of the Board, we’ll add his remarks.
A growing set of matters came out of an email exchange with Economic Development over the weekend. (We hoped to clarify some of what cropped up, before publishing this but are still waiting on a reply.) The narrow questions center around how Economic Development handed a bus tour over to the Friends of Cecil County Charter to run, especially as it became a source of 75% of the group’s revenue (as of end of Sept.). The group working to influence voters collected $8,900, resulting in a profit of $6,787.
In response to our inquiry about the relationship between the two parties, Vernon Thompson, Director of Economic Development, answered: “The county does not sponsor bus tours. . . . The county was not in possession of nor responsible at any time for conducting a tour. We were not in a position to give anything away. Again, the county does not do tours. We don’t believe it is prudent to spend taxpayer money on this type of activity.”
That weekend response greatly elevates the need to pin this aspect down more as it is broadly reported that the county’s marketing effort involved some connection with group tours. It is clear the county didn’t hand over money to finance anything with the campaign or the bus tours, though it appears that in-kind support is involved. It is also apparent that volunteers and other nonprofits handle lots of the effort routinely, but someone had to coordinate things by talking with the Army, arranging the logistics and making sure a reliable volunteer group was designated to be there to meet the visitors. It was one of the things Vernon discussed with us earlier as he mentioned that you just couldn’t have anyone do these tours as he wanted the county marketed professionally. In Cecil Times he said about the same thing. He didn’t want the county embarrassed by “possibly putting less experienced people into the job of showcasing the county to out-of-state visitors.” So more complex questions now center around how involved Economic Development was in the tour process, how the Friends of Charter were selected by local government to handle this visit (unless they were self-selected), and why this particularly tour turned into a source of profit. Those are reasonably precise questions so we’ll provide responses as they are received.
But what about this just evolved point of whether the county does bus tours? We were told it was necessary to bring in the Friends because there were two trips on the same day and the county could only accommodate one, by a departmental spokesperson two weeks ago. The director told us that he was in favor of getting out of the tour business because the numbers weren’t there. The Cecil Whig periodically writes about the county “organizing bus tours” and various pieces of promotional literature addresses the same subject. A little more clarity is now needed to help understand the matter since these new, perplexing questions have been raised. By-the-way, there is no question that the county handed the tour off to the Friends of Charter to handle, market, and run. The need for details centers around the selection process for an event that was going to make a substantial profit for a political group.
Considering other ways to pin down this new element, we thought correspondence and documents would help as the tangle grows more confusing. Thus we asked Economic Development about letters and emails between the Federal government, the Army, the State, the Friends and Economic Development. “There is no written correspondence with anyone concerning tours. We don’t do tours?” Vernon Thompson responded.
The latest response from Economic Development creates a larger array of things that need to be figured out so we’ll keep working on this. We’d actually hoped to put this story about financing the campaign to rest by now and move on with a discussion about the pros and cons of charter, as that subject too needs examination.