The president of a large auto distributorship headquartered in Maryland has given imported clocks as Christmas gifts to state legislators, just a few weeks before the Maryland General Assembly takes up legislation that would help him retain his lucrative distribution contract with Toyota.
Frederick R. Weisman, a wealthy businessman and art collector who is president of Mid-Atlantic Toyota Distributors Inc. of Glen Burnie, apparently began sending the Japanese-made clocks last week. Weisman, according to the lobbyist he has retained, intends to have resubmitted in January legislation which failed last year that would prevent Toyota from canceling its relationship with him without buying him out.
Currently, auto distributorships are not given the same cancellation protections afforded other franchises in Maryland. The state's franchise law protects franchisees from unreasonable cancellations of their contracts by requiring parent companies to buy out the franchise rather than simply cancel the contract.
Weisman's lobbyist, James J. Doyle Jr., said that Toyota has been gradually phasing out its independent distributors and replacing them with wholly owned subsidiaries. Weisman's contract with Toyota, under which he receives cars shipped to Baltimore, prepares them for delivery and sends them to dealers, expires in about two years, said Doyle.
Weisman could not be reached for comment yesterday.
"The fear is that when the contract expires, he will have no bargaining chips, no guarantee the Japanese will renew the contract," said Doyle. "Then the investment he has in the port and a warehouse in Glen Burnie will be worthless. We believe that kind of protection in the bill will convince the Japanese to continue their relationship."
George Manis, an Annapolis lobbyist retained by Cladouhos & Brashares, a District of Columbia law firm that represents Toyota, said that the automaker opposed the legislation because it believes the state should not interfere in "its contractual relationship" with Weisman.
Weisman sought similar legislative protections last year, but the bill, after passing the state Senate, died in the House on the last night of the legislative session after officials from the Maryland Port Administration raised concerns about it.
According to Doyle, Weisman's business imports about 70,000 autos a year through the port of Baltimore and employs about 300 persons. He is the distributor for dealers in Maryland, Virginia, D.C. and three other states. Doyle said that Toyota had suggested it might move its importing operations to another state if the legislation passes.
Last summer Mid-Atlantic Toyota settled a four-year-old antitrust suit brought by Maryland and other states that had alleged the firm and area dealers had conspired to increase the sticker price of their cars by installing "protective packages" on virtually all their 1980 Toyotas. Under the settlement, $4.8 million is being returned to 36,000 customers.
It could not be determined how many of the state's 188 legislators have received the clocks, which some recipients estimated were worth about $50, but about half a dozen delegates from Prince George's and Montgomery counties received them in the mail on Friday. They were accompanied by a Christmas card on which was reproduced a Picasso painting which is part of Weisman's art collection.
A number of legislators complained yesterday that the unsolicited gifts put them in the awkward position of returning the clocks or disclosing them in their annual financial reports. The executive director of the state ethics commission said yesterday he could not immediately determine if the clocks would have to be disclosed.
"I guess this is a little advance gift," said Del. Frank B. Pesci, Sr., who phoned Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs for advice after receiving his clock. "I guess if you don't send it back, he'll be around reminding you of his bill."
Del. David Bird, also of Prince George's, immediately requested the state Department of Legislative Reference to draft a bill outlawing unsolicited gifts after he found his in the mail on Friday. Bird said he would bring the clock to the hearing on his proposed legislation.
"I can't throw it out; I don't know what to do," said Bird. "I don't think legislators should have to refuse gifts, but they should be given a chance to accept or reject them. It's obvious he is trying to influence legislation."
None of the legislators who reported receiving the clocks serve on the committees that will consider Weisman's bill, a fact that led several lawmakers to assume that everyone in the General Assembly is getting one.
"He probably sent grandfather clocks," to those members who serve on the economic committees, said one legislator.
Asked how many clocks had been sent out, lobbyist Doyle said, "I don't know. All I know is I got one.