Maryland Atty. Gen. Francis B. Burch yesterday acknowledged that his office has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in title search and bond counsel fees to personal friends, Democratic campaign contributors, state legislators and minor political figures.
Burch, a candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, emphatically denied that personal friendships or political influence had anything to do with who got the nonbid fees. "Our policy is to spread them around. I could care less who gets the business," he said. "The fact of the matter is that I hardly have anything to do with them."
Burch made his statements in reaction to a story in The Baltimore Sun that reported that he had funnelled $125,000 in bond counsel fees to a law firm headed by two of his close friends and awarded $420,000 in title search fees to friends, political figures and campaign donors.
Burch charged that the story, the latest in a series of critical reports on his fund-raising activities, was planted by his political opponents with the help of Frank DeFilippo, Gov. Marvin Mandel's former press secretary who now is a campaign adviser to Lt. Gov. Blair Lee II. Lee is one of Burch's half-dozen rivals for the Democratic nomination.
"They're trying to knock me out of the box," he said. "It's a despicable attempt to put a kibosh on my testimonial dinner."
This was reference to a $100-a-plate fund-raising dinner Burch has scheduled for May 31 at the Balitmore Civic Center.
DeFilippo dismissed Burch's accusation as "nonsense. If things aren't going well for him that's not my problem," he said. "I refuse to accept the blame for whatever problems he's having."
The fund-raiser is considered crucial to Burch's campaign, and his advisers have said they hope it will raise enough money to scare other opponents out of the race. The dinner has come under intensive scrutiny in a series of critical press reports detailing how high ranking Maryland regulatory and law enforcement officials, including members of Burch's staff, are selling tickets to the $100-a-plate affiar.
In the latest of these reports, The Baltimore Sun said that the two Burch friends whose firm has received $125,000 in bond fees, have agreed to sell more than $5,000 in tickets to the dinner. It also said Burch had recruited several title search lawyers to sell tickets.
Burch yesterday did not dispute te essential facts of the story. He said he had not approached any of the attorneys personally, or exerted influence to see that his friends or personal cronies got state fees.
"I know I haven't done anything wrong," he declared. "We don't play politics in the attorney general's office. We're as clean as hound's teeth. I think I should be getting pats on the back instead of being cut up and made to look like a crook."
The attorney general said a law firm headed by two of his close friends, Herbert R. O'Connor and John J. Sweeney Jr., received $125,000 in bond work the last 10 years because they had successfully handled bond issues for past administrations. "I'm not going to penalize a guy because I happen to know him," he said.
He also claimed that the majority of lawyers who received title search fees were on a list he inherited from his predecessor. "If you eliminated everyone I know and everyone I do business with there wouldn't be anyone left to do the state's work,"he said.
According to The Sun, 80 per cent of the $545,000 that Burch has handed out in title search fees the last three years went to 180 lawyers who were friends or business partners, past campaign donors, or state officials of one sort or another.
Among them were House of Delegates speaker John Hanson Briscoe, whose firm received $9,686; State Senators Elroy G. Boyer, who received $3,964, Edward T. Conroy, who received $1,000, John Corderman, who received $750 and Laurence Levitan, who received $980. None of them have identified themselves as Burch supporters, although Briscoe said his firm bought one $100 ticket to Burch's fund-raiser.
Briscoe said his firm has been doing state title searches for 17 years, long before Burch came to office.
Lawyers are paid $20 per hour for state title searches. To qualify for such work, Burch said a lawyer need only ask the attorney general's office and to maintain $50,000 in legal malpractice insurance.