Md. House Speaker Defends Role in Promoting Coal Deal
By Charles Babington
As his colleagues closed ranks behind him, the speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates offered a vigorous defense yesterday of his role in promoting a state mining deal that benefited one of his friends, describing his actions as routine constituent service.
At a news conference called to respond to an article in yesterday's Washington Post, Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) altered his version of events surrounding the coal deal. After denying it in a previous interview, Taylor acknowledged that he had telephoned a key coal appraiser shortly before the state approved a mining lease with his friend James J.J. Oberhaus.
Taylor said, however, that he acted properly and applied no pressure to sweeten the deal on behalf of Oberhaus, a Western Maryland businessman and constituent. The state-appointed appraiser, Henry F. Moomau, had told The Post he felt pressured to come up with figures favorable to Oberhaus.
Moomau said the state will receive nearly $1 million less than it would have if state officials had followed his original recommendation to set the 1995 coal deal at normal market rates.
Kathleen Skullney, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause of Maryland, said yesterday that the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics should review Taylor's role in the matter. But Taylor and ethics committee leaders rejected that idea, and even Republican House leaders said they would not criticize the speaker, a lifelong Democrat, for his support of the deal.
Many of Maryland's 188 legislators appear to be growing weary and wary of ethics allegations, which have been raised in newspaper accounts and have come to dominate the first half of the 90-day session. The House of Delegates gave a standing ovation yesterday to longtime Del. Gerald J. Curran (D-Baltimore), whose resignation halted an ethics committee inquiry into allegations that he misused his office to benefit his insurance business.
At a news conference two hours later, Taylor offered a fierce defense of his role in the coal lease deal sought by Oberhaus. In addition to calling Moomau, the appraiser hired by the state to evaluate the fairness of the deal, Taylor met with top state officials to push the proposal, which was approved during the final days of the administration of Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D).
Taylor, a powerful figure in state government who has devoted much time to promoting economic development in Western Maryland, said such actions are part of his job. The legislative code of ethics, Taylor said, clearly states "that the appearance of using your office in an unethical way does not involve constituent service. ... My job is to advocate for my constituents, which include the coal industries in Western Maryland."
Asked whether the lease had benefited Oberhaus more than the general public, Taylor said he believed the deal was in the public's interest because it was endorsed by officials of the state Natural Resources and General Services departments.
The deal involved a complex swap. Oberhaus won unprecedented rights to mine a seam of proven coal under 498 acres of Potomac State Forest. In return, he gave the state 216 acres it had wanted for years and his mining rights to coal under 2,800 acres of state-owned land -- rights that had become essentially worthless because of a 1971 ban on strip mining on state land.
Evaluations by Moomau -- described by a state official as the top coal appraiser in Western Maryland -- suggest that the state agreed to overpay Oberhaus, in part by accepting less than fair-market rates for the mining rights it gave up. Moomau said the final deal was "a bargain" for Oberhaus.
Taylor has offered shifting explanations of his role in promoting the deal. When first questioned by The Post, Taylor said he had not been involved in the coal deal and had not called any appraiser. A day later, he said he met with state officials and made telephone calls on behalf of the proposal.
At yesterday's news conference, Taylor acknowledged for the first time that he had called Moomau -- twice. But he said he called Moomau only to urge him to complete revisions in his appraisal before Schaefer left office in January 1995 to avoid jeopardizing the deal.
Taylor said he asked Moomau "if there was any way he could hurry it up."
Moomau has told The Post that after Taylor's phone calls, "I felt pressure to try to come up with an appraisal acceptable to them." Taylor said yesterday that Moomau "is totally wrong" if he interpreted the calls that way.
Taylor's defense came on a day in which many lawmakers said the speaker had engaged in no ethical misconduct. Several noted that in Taylor's case -- unlike the ethics cases involving Curran and Larry Young, the Baltimore Democrat who was expelled from the Senate last month -- there is no allegation of direct financial gain.
"Unlike the allegations against Senator Young or the allegations against Delegate Curran, there are no allegations of money or personal benefits to the speaker," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's). He said he hoped the ethics committee would not take up the matter.
Republican leaders said the same. "There's nothing productive to be gained" from attacking Taylor on the Oberhaus deal, said House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman (R-Howard). "He's been fair to us. . . . I will do everything I can to make sure none of the Republicans do it."
Maryland State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli, who is conducting a criminal investigation into Young's activities, said that "we just don't comment" on whether his office would look into a matter such as Taylor's role in the coal lease deal.
Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Baltimore), one of eight African American senators who opposed Young's expulsion, said he did not expect the ethics committee to review the Taylor matter. Still, he said, it will add to the poor opinion that many voters have of legislators.
"If you ask them," he said, "we're all thieves and crooks."
Staff writer Daniel LeDuc contributed to this report.
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