The Montgomery County Ethics Commission is investigating allegations that Lavell Merritt, the county's minority purchasing officer since 1981, violated county ethics laws by asking several firms that contract with the county to buy tickets to a fashion show he was sponsoring and by trying to secure a $1 billion line of credit from the People's Republic of China to provide loans to black businesses in the Washington area.
Merritt said yesterday he was told in a May 18 letter that the commission had investigated the allegations and found "a reasonable basis" for believing he broke county laws.
Ethics Commission investigations are typically confidential. Merritt said that he wants the details of the probe made public in order to launch a vigorous defense. He said he suspects he is being targeted for his role in setting up a "Black Leadership Assembly" of Montgomery's black business and community leaders.
Among the five allegations cited is one that Merritt sent letters out to various county contractors asking them to buy tickets to "Portraits in Black," a May 15 fashion show Merritt was sponsoring to raise funds for Howard University. Merritt is president of Howard's "University Without Walls" alumni association.
Merritt sent one of those letters to Mike Pohl, vice president of Tribune-United of Montgomery County, which won exclusive rights to construct and run the county's cable television system. Merritt asked Pohl to consider buying tables at the fashion show at the Sheraton Washington Hotel, but Pohl didn't buy any tickets, according to Merritt.
Checks for the fashion show were supposed to be mailed to Merritt's home address in Silver Spring, and made payable to Akenaton Industries, a firm Merritt said he set up in 1978 when he had an idea for rerefining used motor oil. Merritt said among the 300 firms and individuals he solicited for tickets were some county contractors. He said he did not consider that unethical since he does not actually award contracts and knew many of the firms before he joined the county.
A second allegation is that Merritt may have acted improperly by writing a March 4 letter, on county government stationary, to the commercial officer at the embassy of the People's Republic of China. Merritt asked for a meeting to discuss the $1 billion line of credit from the Bank of China.
Merritt wrote in the letter, "I am not representing any government in this matter." But the letter includes Merritt's title.
Asked if he wrote the letter, Merritt said, "I did do that. I think it is a proper role of government. I'm an advocate of black and other minority businesses and I don't see a thing wrong with helping them get what they need." Merritt added that he is a member of the Friends of China exchange group, and that he met the president of the Bank of China at a party in 1980.
Merritt set up the Black Leadership Assembly late last year. It is an ad hoc group of black business and community leaders dedicated to helping Montgomery's blacks exercise more economic and political clout.
A hearing in his case is set for June 2.
"They [the Ethics Commission] want, through the doing in of me, to tell the rest of the people in this county to be quiet, and that would be devastating," Merritt said.