By Rosalind S. Helderman and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 6, 2008
The FBI has launched an inquiry into Maryland Sen. Nathaniel Exum (D-Prince George's), questioning a now-retired state police captain and a fellow senator about Exum in recent months.
Robert F. Bambary, who retired after 35 years with the state police July 1, said he was interviewed by an FBI agent in June about Exum's advocacy on behalf of a Prince George's automobile repair shop that sought to resume Maryland state automobile inspections four years after its license to do so was revoked because of fraudulent practices.
Bambary said the agent also took copies of Maryland State Police files on Hilltop Fleet Services, the Capitol Heights repair shop located just outside Exum's legislative district.
A Senate colleague of Exum's said he also was interviewed in late spring by an FBI agent, primarily about any involvement Exum might have had in legislation this year to introduce new reporting requirements for Maryland scrap metal yards in an effort to curb rising metal thefts.
Exum, who works for a Capitol Heights-based scrap yard, participated in a legislative work group on the bill and sat on a conference committee to reconcile differences between versions of the bill passed by the House of Delegates and the Senate. The bill died on the last day of the General Assembly's legislative session. Exum has disclosed his employment in state filings. State ethics officials said he could vote on the bill because it affected companies in addition to his own.
The senator, who requested anonymity because of what he perceived to be the preliminary nature of the inquiry, said he was also asked what he knew about Exum's role in reinstating Hilltop's license. "I sensed they were kind of fishing," the senator said.
Exum said yesterday that he was not aware of the FBI interviews and had no comment. "I don't have anything to say about that," he said.
The FBI has been conducting a separate investigation of another state senator from Prince George's. Sen. Ulysses Currie (D) is under scrutiny for his financial relationship with the Shoppers Food and Pharmacy grocery chain.
Rich Wolf, an FBI spokesman, would neither confirm nor deny the existence of an Exum probe.
According to Bambary, the FBI agent was particularly interested in whether Exum might have a financial tie to Hilltop Fleet Services. Bambary said he told the agent that he had no evidence of such a tie.
Hilltop owner James L. Wilson did not respond to phone messages yesterday. John Johnson, Wilson's assistant at Hilltop, said he was unaware of the FBI interviews. Johnson blamed Bambary for the station's problems with the state police, accusing the retired captain of targeting Hilltop. Bambary denied the accusation.
According to court records and state police documents, Hilltop's license to inspect vehicles was suspended in 2002 and its license revocation was upheld in 2004 after state police found that the station had issued 2,067 inspection certificates in a five-month period. Police estimated that mechanics could inspect only 872 cars in that time. Police also conducted surveillance of the shop. On one day, the station issued 10 inspection certificates, but no vehicles matching the certificates entered the station's driveway.
Since then, Bambary and his superiors, including Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, the state police superintendent, rejected several attempts by Hilltop to get its license reinstated. Records show that Sheridan had changed his mind by March after Exum engaged in sustained lobbying of Gov. Martin O'Malley's office. Sheridan ordered that the station's license be reinstated March 3.
Sheridan has said he decided to give the station a license after learning that the state police had no clear policy on when to allow stations to resume inspections after a license revocation. He said he was not ordered to do so by the governor's office.
In May, Sean Malone, a deputy legislative officer for O'Malley, said he and others in the governor's office had forwarded Exum's concerns about Hilltop to the state police but never directed Sheridan to issue a new license.
Rick Abbruzzese, an O'Malley spokesman, said yesterday that no one from the governor's office has been contacted by the FBI about Exum.
State police documents include references to Exum's strong advocacy for Hilltop dating back nearly a decade as the station became involved in several disputes with police related to its inspections and the status of its license.
In several documents reviewed by The Washington Post this spring, police referred to Exum as the station's attorney. Police have since acknowledged that the reference was an error. Exum is not a lawyer.
In an interview in May, Exum denied any financial involvement with the station, saying he was interested in its plight because he considers the business a constituent. Exum said Hilltop was being given the runaround by police.
"If you go to jail, they tell you how long you should serve," Exum said in May, adding that police had acted as "the prosecutor, the judge and the jury" on Hilltop's license.
Bambary was transferred to a different position in March, two weeks after he was quoted in a Post article about Hilltop. He had served for nine years as head of the state police division that oversees inspection stations. At the time, a police spokesman confirmed the lateral move but declined to say what prompted it, and Bambary declined to be interviewed.
This week, Bambary said he believes he was transferred in retaliation for speaking out.
"It was pretty obvious -- it was because I had talked to you guys," he said.
Bambary said Sheridan summoned him to his office the day the article appeared. Sheridan told him he was not being disciplined but at one point in the conversation told him "nine years -- I think you've been in there too long," referring to Bambary's command of the police agency's Automotive Safety Enforcement Division. Bambary was transferred 16 days later.
Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman, said the transfer was a routine administrative decision initiated "for the good of the department" and declined to comment further because it was a personnel decision.