Md. Speaker Pushed Deal for Friend
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 1998; Page A01
Maryland Del. Casper R. Taylor Jr., the speaker of the House of Delegates, intervened with state officials to help a close friend win a unique state coal mining lease at bargain rates, according to documents and interviews of those involved in the transaction.
Taylor met with top state officials in 1994 to promote a deal that gave James J.J. Oberhaus a lease to mine state-owned coal in Western Maryland under a contract that will pay taxpayers nearly $1 million less than they should get, according to an expert appraiser hired by the state.
In promoting the arrangement, Taylor personally called the appraiser twice to stress his interest in the deal, according to the appraiser, Henry F. Moomau. Those calls came after Moomau had concluded that the transaction was bad for the state, and Moomau says Taylor and other state officials pressured him to come up with less problematic figures.
"They were trying to get me to reassess. [Taylor] wanted to get the deal done," Moomau said in an interview. "I felt pressure to try to come up with an appraisal acceptable to them."
Taylor (D), who holds one of the three most powerful positions in state government, denied calling any appraiser in the matter. He initially said he was not involved in the deal and said, "I can't remember. . . . I can't recall" if he had meetings with state officials or in any way promoted the Oberhaus coal lease.
But in an interview a day later, Taylor acknowledged that he had met privately with top officials and Oberhaus "once or twice" on the proposal and made phone calls on behalf of Oberhaus. "I'm saying I was involved in it," he said.
Under the complex arrangement, Oberhaus traded a parcel of hilltop land and rights to some coal he could not mine, in return for rights to a valuable seam of proven coal under state land.
The coal rights he traded were valued at a price the state appraiser said was high. He also promised to pay the state a percentage of the sales of coal under the state property, but the rate is much less than what landowners would normally receive, according to appraisals in state files.
Taylor said he supported the deal, along with the other Western Maryland legislators, to promote jobs and the struggling coal industry in the region. He defended it as "a good deal" for the state and said of his friendship with Oberhaus, "I am only allowed to support proposals of people I don't know in Western Maryland?"
Oberhaus said he is "bitter" about questions raised about Taylor's involvement in the coal lease. He said the speaker "always has been really supportive of the coal industry. I'm not saying Delegate Taylor wasn't involved, but so was Delegate [George C.] Edwards and Senator [John J.] Hafer," Republicans who represent Garrett County, where the coal mine is located. Taylor represents part of adjoining Allegany County.
Oberhaus said there is no guarantee the coal lease would be profitable. As to the terms to which state officials agreed, Oberhaus said: "You'd have to ask them why they agreed. I think they got a good deal. I'd say I won't know if I got a good deal for 10 or 20 years."
Oberhaus said that the coal mine has not produced as expected and that mining stopped in January because an unexpectedly high sulfur content made the coal unsellable and because water on the mine floor made a large area unworkable. But the mine supervisor, Mike Kelly, said Monday that mining is continuing, the coal is of acceptable quality and the miners are bolstering the mine floor and expect to mine the entire seam.
Taylor's intervention in the coal deal could be troublesome for the speaker in this session of the General Assembly. The leadership is eager to move the spotlight of the session off ethics after two controversies: Sen. Larry Young (D-Baltimore) was expelled last month for allegedly misusing his office for profit, and Del. Gerald J. Curran (D-Baltimore) resigned yesterday after accusations of impropriety.
Taylor, who became House speaker in 1994, has been a frequent champion of ambitious and sometimes controversial economic projects for Western Maryland, including a large hotel and golf course at Rocky Gap State Park, a coal-fired electric generating plant, a steam railway for tourists and, in this legislative session, proposals that could put thousands of slot machines in Western Maryland.
Taylor's involvement in the coal lease for Oberhaus, whom he calls a close friend, preceded his recent efforts to arrange the state's purchase of a failing restaurant owned by Oberhaus in the scenic railway's renovated station at Frostburg. That purchase, for $600,000, is to go before the Maryland Board of Public Works on March 4. The proposal has generated heated debate in Western Maryland.
Oberhaus, 45, manages many of the Maryland holdings of his mother's old-line family, the Jenkins family, which owns extensive mineral rights in the region.
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