Group that Bankrolled Campaign to Influence Voters Clarifies Financial Questions, While County Declares It Isn’t Involved in Bus Tours

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.

Web site copyrighted by Economic Development


16 responses to “Group that Bankrolled Campaign to Influence Voters Clarifies Financial Questions, While County Declares It Isn’t Involved in Bus Tours

  1. Why not sponsor a debate between the Friends of Charter and the Enemies of Charter ?

  2. Howard, there needs to be a serious airing of the pros and cons of Charter. We’d hoped to contribute to that but this financial tangle with the Friends and the county grows more confusing as the county now says it was never involved in bus tours. But instead we’re now working on that aspect of the political campaign’s financing related to figuring out whatever the county’s involvement is with marketing and organizing BRAC bus tours. We’ll get it pinned down, but think the other points need exmaination too.

    BTW, we’d be pleased to present focused arguments from either side here, if someone wants to submit something. You, in your posts, seem to have a great depth of interest in the matter.

  3. Howard Beale is a fictional charter from the movie”Network” from 1976. I would suggest you do a google search before you pick a fake name. Anyone who is going to not have enough courage to use thier real name should not talk about real issues. That person can just stay in the land of make believe. As fore your debate idea lets do it, maybe we can get Mr. Rogers to host it.

    • Let’s do it? Are you the same Chris Zeauskas who failed to show for the Forum / Debate sponsored by the Cecil County Patriots ?

    • Maybe “Howard” did do a google search before picking a fake name. As I recall, the key line from that movie was “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Appropriate for our political climate, I think.

      And if you REALLY expect us to believe you are the real Chris Zeauskas, think again. Chris is best known for not showing up for candidate forums and debates. Doesn’t define COURAGE in my mind.

  4. What planet has that man been on. His people are always telling people about all the tours they give and how many army they got moving here. When did he decide to get out of the tours. After people started calling questions would be my guess. Just saying

  5. I think that it is the REAL Chris Zeauskas. I think he is most known for getting 3100 votes for republican central committee. It sounds like to me Howard Beale AKA Bob Amato is just mad because he will have plenty of time on his hands now that he no longer belongs to that committee.

    • Dear Brooke…Howard Beale is Howard Beale. Chris Z is best known for losing the County Commissioner race in the primary despite the big bucks spent by the sponsors of the “Fiscal Team” .

  6. You know what man I talk about. That man tomson that with the county. I never did favor econmics developemnt doing that. Getting people to move here How about selling us to people that have jobs for people. You always says a lot on here Howard. What is up with that. You connected to it to.


      • Howard:
        Indeed this is one of the unusual elections in terms of options citizens are going to make. It’s moving lots of us off our traditional orientations as we really need to search for candidates that are going to demand and fight for responsive and resonsible local government, not just talk about it whether they progressive, moderately conservative or very conservative. We’re going to favor those that most hold govenrment accountable for its actions and then we’ll factor in our own preference on the value’s orinetation spectrum, especially at the local level.
        Let me give an example since one needs to look at the demonstrated acts of politicians not what they say to find evidence of the actual committment.
        Let’s take this current tangle over whether Economic Development handed off a profit making bus tour to a group trying to influence an election. If all those facts stand, this is so clearly wrong that even in Cecil County it reaches the unbelieveable level. But only the county’s political leadership is going to be able to clear the matter up now by demanding answers that either clear things up or verify county involvement.
        However, as you’re well aware the matter is disputed by the county. Well since it is important that our government workers not get involved in the financing of political campaigns, if I were county government’s leadership (or the Friends) I’d want this cleared up so fast (unless it is too messy to clear up).
        Here are the facts
        1. There was a bur tour managed by the Friends of Charter, a group trying to influence voters and it raised a substantial profit to finance the vote swaying campaign.
        2. The county advertised that they were the contact point for the registration/coordiantion of the “last hurrah” bus tour and the general perception was that the county had been conducting tours (or at least, coordinating, arranging, scheduling) them for a couple of years.
        3, Two county officials told us why they allowed the Friends to host the tour.
        4. Then the county started saying they’ve never been in the tour business and thus couldn’t hand a tour off to anyone!
        5. But there are plenty of published stories talking about the county’s success with these bus tours getting people to move here and web sites saying contact the county to register for a tour.
        6. Okay so there’s the situation. Did a dept. of county government select a political group to make money on one of its tours? Why this time was it a political group seeking to get out a vote on an election? And why was this one a profit generating tour or were all of them generating a profit for someone. Or as they later said, were they never involved in bus tours.
        7. There could be answers, but they’re going to have to come from the county’s elected political leadership now and if there are fine, put the story to rest and let people focus on the election.
        The matter’s now heading into it’s 4th week simply grows more confusing. Two commissioners (President Lockhart & Commissioner Hodge) were contacted to help clarify the matter that grew more confusing once the county said it had never been in the bus tour business (all commissioners were copied), said they’d ask the dept. to clarify the matter.
        Well this started 4 weeks ago and we’re now what about three weeks away from the election. Wouldn’t you want this cleared up before the election as it directy affects one of the most improtant questions we’ll consider here, do we change our form of local government?

  7. Mike,
    A comment to article covering the same situation:

    “Bob Amato on October 11, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    I think that I finally see the true picture. The US Army asked Cecil County to provide a sixth tour for possible BRAC transferees, who had specifically requested to see housing. The county could not provide the necessary funds and the Chamber of Commerce could not provide volunteer guides as they had done in the past.

    Joyce Bowlsbey, a volunteer with Friends for Charter, stepped up on short notice and organized and conducted the tour. The costs of the tour were covered by builders who apparently hoped that the tour would generate business. Excess funds (profit) went to Friends of Charter and the county incurred no cost.

    Full financial disclosure was made to the State of Maryland. No improprieties or irregularities were found. The only remaining question is why Joyce Bowlsbey did not receive an award from the county for her efforts in facilitating the event.”

    Now Mike, I know you want to be an investigative reporter and break some big bad story, but don’t you think you might be making a mountain out of a mole hill?
    Or are you anti-charter? If so, why?
    You, and many others, keep promising proof of the opposing side, but the only thing offered is scare tactics that it will cost more.
    You have not published your article as you promised.
    The opposition does not offer opinion or proof.
    It appears you just want to dumbfound the public and influence a very important decision.
    The Friends of Charter have offered their side.

  8. Rauol:
    Thanks for sharing your perspective. We try to let both sides get an airing on Someone Noticed. We’ve consistently had that goal as we think it’s a valuable public service in an underserved media market. Those having opinions that are different than ours are welcome.

    Raoul, one of the problems that creates an imbalance in Cecil County is that there is no truly independent source for news coverage or the outlets that we have aren’t going to question politicians too much. That creates an imbalance because government doesn’t have to worry about someone challenging them with hard questions through the media.

    Raoul, an an example, read the editorial columns and political coverage of the Kent County News. That small weekly, anytime the commissioners go behind closed doors to discuss public business, makes it a news story so at least readers know that they’re doing that and have some idea of what the politicians are addressing. Periodically in the course of the year, you’ll see editorials taking the politicians to task for doing that or making some other decision. And periodically during the course of a year they’ll file Freedom of Information Act Requests and take complaints to the state. That sort of thing creates an important balance, and contributes to good government. When did that last happen with Legacy Media in Cecil County, decades ago perhaps? BTW, that adds value for shareholders if you’re running a legacy media company.

    Raoul, probably take as much noise to get that done here as it took to get the commissioners to maintain the constant yield. What pressure that took.

    Raoul, but back to point. (That last paragraph just happens to be one of my favorite subjects, the need for a strong, inquisitive, indepedent media that’s a little skeptical and has the resources to dig into things.)

    Raoul, we have a lots of respect for Bob and his opinions. Add that to the fact that he signed his name to the piece, it causes us to give it greater consideration. Anonymous news sites on the Internet, unsigned posts and such have to be considered for what they’re worth. There’s obviously some reason or agenda if they’re not willing to sign the piece or their web products. How am I to evaluate anonymous news sites, let alone the posts. It’s a problem, not unlike what talk radio is able to do to the political conversation or what some newspapers do with the grapevine pieces. That’s why from the beginning as we took on an earlier local political investigation as print media couldn’t touch it we decided our work would be signed.

    Raoul, you wonder how we could question this arrangement. I’ve got to tell you, we were absolutely shocked when we heard the comments and saw how the first pass at this story was going to unfold. Our shock came from (assuming that when someone gets all the verifiable facts out there) hearing that county government would have any involvement in selecting a group trying to raise funds to influence an election, especially as they were going to use the event to finance the vote getting media campaign. That struck us as so wrong that as soon as we heard where the discussion was going, we made sure we let our contact know (someone we also have a great deal of repsect for) that we were talking on the record. It was fine we were told. Nothing to worry about.. Okay.

    Raoul, if the facts are as reported by the sources (those being from the Friends and the two initial interviews with Economic Development), and published reports about county support for bus tours does it not bother you that county government would select a group to have a political fundraiser for the most important question, we’ll face, should we alter our form of local government?

    The other point to that is when something like this comes up and there are questions, I’d want it cleared up immediately so it wasn’t floating around. If the county (notice we are seeking verification) didn’t handle bus tours and if the county didn’t hand it off to a political group, get documentation out there. If they did (or have some involvement) get that out there and explain it too. Either way settle the issue and straighten it out – one way or the other.

    Raoul, you ask about our opinion on Charter. For six times now we’ll be asked to vote on modifying the form of local government. For five times, beginning in 1968, we always were excited about modifying our form of local government and voted in favor of it. Given our 1960s well developed vale system we though it was the best thing we’d heard about local Cecil County government. Change it. But we also have a well developed ’60s value of always be politely inquisitive and questioning things, especially from an authority! So for five times, we always voted in favor of it.

    The question is now on the ballot again, and we’ll have to record another vote. We’ll share more, but from our standpoint as a “fair and balanced” (Raould not in the favored Fox News Style, of course) we’d hoped to be able to share articles exploring this matter and include both perspectives. The problem is that county government keeps making this tangle grow more confusing and requiring much more digging. Put it to rest, whatever the rest of the story is!

    We’ve also mentioned that we welcome press releases from either side and will publish them because this does need an airing of the pros and cons from each side. And there are arguments from each side, as there will be on any issue.

  9. Mike (Dixon),

    I have to tell you I’ve been disappointed with your focus on the Charter Government issue.

    With less than 3 weeks from the election, where is the debate on the pros and cons of Charter and what those changes in County Government mean to us?

    You mention (frequently) the lack of investigation of “legacy media” on important issues. Isn’t debating the pros/cons of Charter much more important/significant to our community than where a special interest group received revenue?

    While I don’t dispute the apparent lack of wisdom of the county’s department of Economic Development partnering with the Friends of Charter group (which should be pointed out is a separate legal entity of the Charter Board), I don’t care who bought billboards or advertising or signs – or where they got the money to do so. I’m trying to understand the impact of Charter Government – and why it is a good or bad thing for Cecil County.

  10. James:

    Thanks for your feedback and it is understood.

    Actually we thought the issue of finances would go away with some explanation put out there quickly so it didn’t edge toward the election. So much for that assumption, but we should’ve known better.

    If once the facts are finally presented in this situation and it turns out that a department of county government selected a favored political group and provided it with a means to raise funds, that will be very troubling to us. If that’s the case (notice we’re still asking for facts), what comes up in the next election cycle as someone favors another issue or another candidate. That’s why it is important that someone is asking these hard questions and someone is watching these types of situations.

    But beyond that, you are right, we need information on the pros and cons of charter. There are important points on each side we’re sure. We’ve extended the offer to groups on either side (Friends, for example) to share material here (such as press releases) or provide commentary. There is no organized group on the other side, but there are people out there with opinions.

    People need that type of info since this is an important ballot question. We’ll try to get to examining that but the Elkton crowd is getting after us for letting news slip there (There’s so much important news in this county, if someone will print it).

    By this time, we thought we would have finished our piece examining the history of the home rule question in the county, but that sure when off track as this simple story became more challenging to unearth.

    Anyway, James thanks for your feedback.

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