Every weekday morning at 9:30 sharp, Inspector Howard van Breemen gets behind the wheel of his yellow Dodge pickup truck and cruises the state roads and highways of Prince George's and Montgomery counties in seach of lawbreakers.
It is a lonely, tedious mission that Van Breemen embbarks upon, one that requires steady hands, intense concetration and the eyes of a hawk. So far, in only four months on the job, he has discovered and cited more than 200 violators, including Maryland Senate President Steny H. Hoyer and six other Prince George's politicans.
Van Breemen modestly call himself a sign spotter. The state of Maryland calls him the District 3 inspector for the outdoor advertising section, Maryland Department of Transportation. In either case, this one man in his pickup truck has created more political intrigue in his territory than he would ever expect.
The story of the sign spotter and the politicans begins in the back office of Tony's Super Bowl on Baltimore Avenue in Hyattsville. The proprietor, Tony Cicoria, is a candidate for the House of Delegates seat in the 22nd District Democratic primary. He is running against the slate put up by the dominant Democratic Party organizations.
"I gotta figure it's the machine striking out at me," Cicocia said yesterday, as he looked over six citations he had recently received from Inspector van Breemen. "It's a tactic, that's all. The party leadership put them up to this because I'm running a clean campaign and they're afraid of me."
The citations Cicoria was holding informed him that he had 15 days to adhere to a simple but obscure law, the one that van Breemen is out to enforce. It states that all outdoor signs situated within 500 feet of a state permit. The signs can be large or small billboards or yard signs, commercial or political - they all need a tiny black and white license plate on them to signify that they have been cleared with the state bureauracy.
Cicoria, unaware of the law, placed six small campaign signs - without permits - in the yards of friends who happened to live within 500 feet of state roads or highways in the Hyattsville area - Rtes. 1, 193, 501, 201 and 212. They were up for less than a week before van Breemen spotted them and wrote the citations.
"Who the hell ever heard of such a thing?" asked Cicoria. "They had to be after me."
Cicoria's paranoia was in this case unfounded. Van Breemen, who arrived in the Prince George's region from the Midwest recently, had never heard of Cicoria nor was he aware of the ins and outs of county politics.
In fact, there are very few people in van Breemen's own department, let alone the local political scene, who know he exists or what he does. His boss, Morris Stein, could not remember van Breemen's name yesterday. The secretary at the State Highway Aministration building in Greenbelt, where van Breemen works, said of him: "No one here really knows what he does. He comes in the morning, drives around all day, and come back. Weird."
"I was just driving along one day, going somewhere - I don't always plan the routes - and I spotted the Cicoria signs without permits," van Breemen explained. "That's my job, and I'm pretty good at it. I can tell whether a sign has a permit license from quite a distance. Only missed one out of 200 so far."
Of the 199 or so that van Breemen has not missed, 24 belonged to the one of the most influential Democrats in Prince George's, Steny Hoyer. Three months ago, when he was still running for governor, Hoyer put up hundreds of black and yellow campaign signs along the major roads of the county. None of them had permits.
Van Breemen's citations began trickling in to the Hoyer campaign headquarters on a daily basis. They were ignored.
"I got a lesson on where signs could and could not go a few years ago," explained Hoyer aide Fran Tracy. "But I'm not into signs this year, I've graduated to bigger things. I wash my hands of it. When those citations came in, we would send them off to Steny's district coordinators to handle. I guess we kind of blew it, but there was not attempt to consciously or unconsciously break the law."