Charles W. Gilchrist, midway through his first term as Montgomery County executive, has taken several steps in the last two weeks to free his political career of a controversy over the county's liquor distribution system that has plagued him for nearly a year.
Yesterday Gilchrist released a memo endorsing, with one exception, the recommendations of an auditing firm looking into questions of mismanagement and fraud at the county's Department of Liquor Control. He also drew up a memorandum detailing his views on his role in the county's merit system, an issue that arose from the liquor controversy.
And during the last month, Gilchrist has been giving speeches before Democratic groups, taping TV interviews, popping up at press conferences and making appearances in Annapolis. That is something new.
Since last summer, the county executive has been on the defensive, wrestling with politically embarrassing series of events that has come to be known as liquorgate.
Last month, auditors hired by the Montgomery County Council concluded that despite widespread mismanagement in the $60 million-a-year liquor department operation, they were unable to determine whether there had been favoritism, as a previous consultant, Leonard I. Colodny, had alleged.
That was good news to Gilchrist, who had first hired and then fired Colodny and who has subsequently come to regret ever dealing with him.
The auditing company, Touche Ross, made dozens of recommendations to improve management of the liquor department. In his memo released yesterday, Gilchrist strongly endorsed all but one of the auditors' recommendations.
"I think Gilchrist has felt beleaguered by liquorgate," county spokesman Charles Maier said. "Touche Ross poured cold water on some of the charges, and now he feels he's got a little momentum."
The council, which commissioned the $125,000 audit and adopted it last month, had directed Gilchrist to respond to the auditing company's recommendations.
Touche Ross recommended that the department's listing committee, which decides what brands of liquor to buy, be expanded to a six-member "liquor control policy committee" which would include a member designated by the County Council. Gilchrist objected to this arrangement, saying that the committee would be a "management committee" and that it wouldn't be "appropriate" to have a representative of the council on it.
The executive's response, which was in part drawn up by the liquor department, also provides for a "contract monitoring committee" comprising three people, including the department's deputy director, Frank Orifici.
Orifici is the man whose hiring last year by the county for the second highest job in the department first prompted reporters to look into the Department of Liquor Control and subsequently precipitated the controversy.
The executive branch does not customarily monitor contracts between the County Council and an auditing company. Chief Administrative Officer Robert Wilson said the committee will act as a "liaison" with Touche Ross, although the arrangement already has been criticized by one county Democrat as a case "of the fox watching the henhouse."
On the second major front of liquorgate -- the abuses of the county merit system alleged by Colodny, who said he was offered merit jobs by Gilchrist aides -- Gilchrist drafted a six-page memo Feb. 12 on "the executive's role in Merit System selection."
He said he would be "remiss" if he did not seek candidates for merit system jobs."The county executive should urge competent people to apply for jobs in the county," Gilchrist said.
In what some see as an effort ot diffuse criticism that his administration abused the impartial practices of the merit system, Gilchrist added: "I believe that the Merit System in principle does not require the foreclosure of public employment to able and competent individuals who know or are known by elected or appointed officials and who may share their goals. I believe that it is not only appropriate but highly desirable for me to encourage competent and dedicated people to seek Merit System positions with the county."