He is, in many ways, the quintessential statehouse senator, with his silver-flecked hair, thick girth and deep, sonorous voice. Lolling in his high, leather, cushioned chair or rising and flicking on his microphone with a flourish, Jerome Francis Connell looks as though he might very well own the Maryland Senate.
And indeed this man, elected thrice to serve the people of Anne Arundel County, has followed a familiar path in the General Assembly. He has, the record shows, used the very image and position he enjoys so well to serve the state's special economic interests with an alkmost unmatched fervor -- and help his own law practice as well.
In his 53 years, Connell has risen from the row houses of Baltimore's Highlandtown to become the squire of a 28-acre horse farm, and from night law student to the leadership of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. lHe has been rewarded with generous campaign contributions and even free vacations, including a trip to Bermuda last year paid for by banking interests.
But more significantly, Connell's prestigious position has filled his law office with more and more clients who apparently believe that he can win them special consideration through his political clout. And although there is no documented evidence that he encourages such expectations -- or generally fulfills them -- Connell apparently has not hesitated to charge fees that some of his colleagues consider extraordinary, or use his position in the Senate on behalf of both his paying clients and the judges who hear their cases.
He does it, moreover, with the unabashed bluster befitting a man sure of his position. "I've got enough money to buy and sell you," he once boasted to a reporter who tried to question him. Another quoted his as saying: "If I feel that legislation has merit, I'll go where angels fear to tread."
Connell declined an interview last week. "You print whatever you like. You paper has very little circulation in my area," he said.
How this otherwise flamboyant defender of traditional values, who reportedly knelt tearfully to thank God on his election night, has embroiled himself in controversy is a story of power and influence merging with self-interest in a legislature[WORDS OMITTED FROM TEXT]
Connell is, in fact, a man of contradiction. He rails against "limousine liberals" and advocates an agenda of conservative causes, from the Maryland Board of Film Censors to the death penalty. He is, his friends say, a staunch family man, opposed to abortion and lenience for juvenile crime.
At the same time, however, he has been an ardent supporter of gambling interests, so devoted to the cause of slot machinges in Anne Arundel that he once placed toy facsimiles on every state senator's desk. In return, those interests have contributed heavily to his campaign coffers.
And then there are the tavern and packae store oweners who have also contibuted to his campaigns and are regulated not only by the legislature but also by the Anne Arundel County Board of License of Commissioners.
Under the unwritten rules of political patronage, the members who license establishments and the inspectors who police them are nominated by the county's three state senators. Connell, as the senoir Democratic senator, effectively appoints the chairman and four of 12 inspectors.
In his political role, Connell sponsors the bills that raise the salaries of these liquor board officials, and even uses one of the inspectors whose job he controls to tend bar at his political functions and shepard consitiuents through the statehouse.
All of this is not particularly unusual for a state senator. What is unusual, say liquor board members and other local lawyers, is that Connell and his law partner are prominent among the attorneys who most often appear before the liquor board to represent tavern and restaurant owners seeking alcohol licenses or defending themselves against charges brought by the inspectors.
When Connell appears before the board, he thus finds himself seeking justice from a chairman and inspectors he selected, who depend on him for their pay raises and who in several cases have worked in and contributed to his election campaigns.
"As a person who's for good government, I think it would be a healthy thing for anyone who appointed a man not to have him firm ever appear before him," said A. Glenn White, a Democratic liquor board commissioner appointed by another senator. Another of the three commissiners, Republican John G. Gary Jr., says he agrees.
And even Board Chairman George M. (Reese) King is sensitive to the issue. Brandishing a five-year list he ordered prepared to show the disposition of Connell's cases compared with other attorneys' cases, King said: "Connell got no favoritism from anyone -- he got treated harder, probably, than anyone else." King added: "He's a senator -- he has to do what he wants to do."
Whatever the disposition of his cases, however, it appears that in at least some instances Connell's clients have approached him because they believed he had extraordinary influence over the board -- and have paid dearly for their belief.
"Somebody had said the onley way to get a license is through him," said one dissatisfied former client who said Connell was paid $12,500 to do the job, a fee the client said was described as excessive by another attorney. The former client, who eventually was awarded a license, got the impression from Connell that the case would be costly because of alleged political problems never explicitly identified. ;
"I've heard some stories over the years of political types charging flat, enormous [legal] fees" for liquor board work, said Harry C. Blumenthal, another attorney who has practiced extensively before the panel. "I don't believe I've charged a client anything like $5,000 or $10,000."
Blumenthal said he charges an hourly rate. His partner said the entire process normally should take no more than 20 hours, which would cost $1,500 at his hourly rate.
But fees are not the only controversial aspect of Connell's relationship with the liquor board. There was the time, for example, shortly after Connell's last narrow election victory when one of the inspectors he appointed, a loyal campaign worker, dropped by the tavern owned by a strong supporter of the senator's opponent. Connell had represented the previous owner of the tavern and so knew the nature of its facilities and license requirements.
"I told him that he had a restaurant liquor license, and that he would have to open a restaurant -- which he didn't have -- for that type of license," remembers the inspector, Jim Whitten, who said his visit had nothing to do with bers the inspector, Jim Whitten, who said his visit had nothing to do with the election campaign or Connell.
The tavern owner, Edwin Taylor, later was called before the liquor board for a hearing to change his liquor license, a proceeding that cost him $250. "There's no doubt in my mind that he was being singled out," said comissioner Gary, who sat on the board at the time, "because he supported [Connell's opponent] in the campaign."
This apparent mixture of politics and law practice by Connell is not restricted to the liquor board. In the Senate, Connell freely has promoted the caused of people who paid him for help as a lawyer.
One of Connell's longtime clients, for example, is Creston Tate, the owner of a large auto dealership. Anne Arundel County who keeps Connell's firm on retainer for occasional legel assistance. For four years Tate, who has also been a major contributor to Connell's campaigns, has been trying to buy a parcel of land adjacent to one of his auto lots.
The problem, he said, is that the land is owned by the state Department of Transportation, which insisted it must sell the land by auction, not by negotiation with him or with the county government, which also had been willing to buy the land and turn it over to Tate.
And so, Tate says, he called his lawyer, Connell, last year "to see if he could help us buy the property without going to auction." And Connell went to work -- not as a lawyer, but as a state senator.
First, Connell called and corresponded with state officials in an effort to negotiate the sale. Then, when he was told that such a negotiation was against state law, he simply introduced a bill in this year's General Assembly, entitled "State Department of Transportation -- Surplus Land Sales."
The bill, not surprisingly, allowed the sale of parcels of land to an adjacent owner "with the approval of the governing body of the county," and Connell mentioned Tate as a good example of what he meant when the bill was heard by the Senate Finance Committee.
Unfortunately for Tate, however, state officials testified that Connell's bill "would be in direct conflict with the intent of existing law" and "not in the best interest of the state," and the committee killed the bill by a 6-to-0 vote.
Connell was equally unsuccessful in his efforts to help another client obtain a pardon from then acting governor Blair Lee III. Edward Dugan, who has successfully completed probation after an armed robbery conviction, was looking for someone to take his plea to the state and went to Connell, he said, "because I was advised by a couple of other attorneys that was the way to go about it -- get somebody in politics."
Dugan said he paid Connell $250 for help, whereupon Connell wrote a letter to Lee's legislative officer -- on his Senate stationery.
"In my opinion," he wrote in part, "Mr. Dugan is entitled to a pardon at this time." The letter was signed "Jerome F. Connell, State Senator," and nowhere mentioned that Dugan was a paying client.
Lee, however, responded by refering Dugan's case to the state parole commission. Connell began corresponding with parole officials, this time as an attorney, but Dugan's request for a pardon eventually was denied twice, the last time just last month.
Still, potential clients are said to line up outside Connell's law office during the week nights that he stays open for business. And the senator himself for business. And the senator himself remains as outspoken as ever on his issues in the legislature -- most prominently this year on a proposed condominium regulation law, favored by real estate brokers and developers, of which Connell -- himself the owner of apartments -- is the champion.
"I think you have to do what's right," he was quoted as saying last fall. "If you're going to worry about the consequences of everything you do politically, then I don't think you're much use to the state or the people."