Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes confirmed today that Frank J. DeFrancis, his secretary of economic and community development, is resigning to take control of the Laurel Race Course without creating the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Appearing with DeFrancis at a State House press conference, Hughes announced that the secretary and two business associates had purchased the track and that "it is in his interest and my interest that he step down."
DeFrancis' resignation, which comes less than a year after he took office, becomes effective Friday. DeFrancis said that the details of his purchase of the racing facility will be made public Saturday and that he will formally take title on Monday.
DeFrancis and Hughes both said the Laurel purchase might be perceived as improper, despite the fact that DeFrancis already owns the Freestate harness track and that the state Ethics Commission ruled last year that owning that track did not conflict with his state position.
"Even though there's been no conflict at all up until this point and there would be no conflict in the future as far as I'm concerned, in public business you have to be awfully concerned about the appearance and the opportunity for conflict and impropriety," said Hughes.
DeFrancis said that a recent editorial in the Baltimore Sun urging him to resign if he bought Laurel had changed his thinking on the conflict question.
"I had felt that since there was no conflict, there would not be in anyone's mind an appearance of a conflict. Now that one person has raised his voice and said, 'Hey, there's an appearance of a conflict,' it's like a farmer sowing a seed. I feel that the important work this department has and the vital role it plays in the economy of this state . . . has to take pre-emptive position over anyone's secular views."
One factor in his decision, said DeFrancis, was that the upcoming session of the General Assembly would be considering a number of proposals to give tax breaks to the state's three thoroughbred racing tracks in order to make the Maryland industry more competitive with other states.
Although the Department of Economic and Community Development plays no direct role in regulating the racing industry, DeFrancis in his tenure there has won widespread admiration and earned an unusual degree of influence in the legislature.
Hughes said DeFrancis will continue to work on a number of projects over a period of two to three weeks, but will not remain on the payroll for that time.
Hughes also announced that Lt. Gov. J. Joseph Curran Jr. will oversee the department until a successor is named.
A number of legislative leaders are concerned that it will be extremely difficult to find someone with DeFrancis' credentials to serve out a term of just two years. Hughes, who cannot serve a third term, leaves office in early 1987.
Speaking of DeFrancis, House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin said, "We won't see another one like him again."