Bias Review in Montgomery

Police Cleared of Most Complaints

A federal review of complaints of racial harassment by Montgomery County police cleared the department of most of the allegations lodged against it, sources said.

But the three-year investigation by the Justice Department's civil rights division concluded that black motorists received about 21 percent of traffic tickets issued by county police, even though African Americans account for 12 percent of the population.

The review was critical of police handling of complaints against officers. And sources said the Justice Department raised questions about more than a dozen incidents in which police pulled over African American drivers for questioning primarily because a witness to a crime had described the lawbreaker as black. But the investigators found no evidence of a policy, implicit or explicit, encouraging racial discrimination.

Hoping to avert a federal lawsuit, Montgomery officials have agreed to comply with several Justice Department recommendations, including improved methods of identifying problem officers.

Gay Partner Benefits

Montgomery Offers Health Coverage

Montgomery County is set to join Baltimore, Takoma Park and dozens of local governments across the country in extending health benefits to the live-in partners of its gay employees.

The County Council approved the bill by a 6 to 3 vote, and county Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) signed it Friday. It is to take effect in 90 days.

"This is an equity issue, and the costs here are minimal enough that it doesn't cause me a great deal of worry," Duncan said. "This is something we can do."

Said Reginald T. Jetter, a division chief in Montgomery's permitting department whose partner has been without health insurance for the five years they have lived together: "It means I will be getting the same benefits as other county employees. It relieves a lot of the anxieties my partner and I have about health care and the cost of health care."

But some conservatives are vowing to fight the measure. A civic group called Montgomery County Watch plans to launch a petition drive to put the health benefits question on a ballot for county voters to decide.

Across the Region

Hechinger Stores on the Block

* Used to be, Hechinger sold nuts and bolts and almost anything else you might need to fix up your home. Now stores in the home-grown chain are themselves being sold. About half of the bankrupt company's 26 stores in the Washington area were auctioned off last week. But real estate officials say it's unlikely that Home Depot Inc. or Lowe's Cos. will take over most of the stores because they're too small by today's standards.

* It looks as if the District's beleaguered New York Avenue corridor is about to score a major coup. The city is said to be within days of wrapping up a deal to bring the new headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms--and 1,000 jobs--to the corner of New York and Florida avenues NE. At one point, Virginia had tried to woo the agency to move to the other side of the Potomac.

* An Arlington jury convicted a promising lawyer and GOP activist of cutting the brake lines on his former girlfriend's car. Kevin Sabo, 38, testified that he didn't do it, but prosecutors said he was moved to the act of violence by the couple's breakup. Heather Lawrence, 28, wasn't injured when the car crashed into a fence in March. Sabo, the former GOP chairman of Virginia's 11th Congressional District, is to be sentenced in January.

* A major battle could be brewing in Maryland's General Assembly come the new year, when Gov. Parris N. Glendening tries to push through bills making the state the first to mandate integrated locks on new handguns. The Democrat says the plan is "aggressive, specific and realistic." But Del. Thomas E. Hutchins (R-Charles), a retired police officer, said the proposals will be a tough sell, partly because some of the technology isn't ready.

* The District has a new fire chief, and he's vowing to shake up the joint. Thomas Tippett, a 31-year veteran of the department, took over after Donald Edwards was forced out after growing criticism about his management ability and questions about where he lived. Tippett would like the post permanently, but for now, he's just filling it as the city begins a national search for a successor.

* Finally, a suggestion from adults that high school students can embrace: Go ahead and sleep another hour. A panel appointed by the Arlington County School Board says that starting in September, high school classes should start at 8:30 a.m. instead of 7:30 to improve students' learning and safety. Similar efforts in Fairfax and Montgomery counties have been stymied because of the cost and school-bus complications, but some Arlington School Board members say it might work there.

* Even television, with all its juridical dramas, does not show every kind of issue that can be adjudicated: One scene that is seldom seen in life or art was played out in Montgomery County Circuit Court on Friday. In the aftermath of a divorce, a judge was asked to enforce a dog custody and visitation order. Judge S. Michael Pincus, cast in the Solomonic role, ordered a woman to relinquish the gray keeshond to her former husband for a one-month visit next month.

-- Erica Johnston

Goodbye to a Beloved Bear

National Zoo Loses Star Attraction Hsing-Hsing to Age, Disease

His name means "shining star," and to millions of animal lovers around the world, Hsing-Hsing lived up to the billing.

The beloved giant panda died last Sunday, at age 28 nearly the Methuselah of the panda world. After a meal of his favorite foods--baked yams, bamboo, rice gruel and a blueberry muffin from Starbucks--he was euthanized by sorrowful zoo keepers who didn't want him to suffer needlessly.

Hsing-Hsing, who had been in declining health for years, was diagnosed in May with terminal kidney disease, and his eyesight was going. In recent weeks he was so ill that he could hardly move. "It became clear to us that we could not maintain his quality of life," said Lisa M. Stevens, the National Zoo's associate curator of primates and pandas.

When Hsing-Hsing and his female friend arrived at the zoo in 1972, the bear pair were black and white envoys from Red China, on something of an exchange program in international relations. China had gotten a path-breaking visit from President Richard Nixon; Washington got Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling. The pandas, by all indications, won more hearts.

But the pair's attempts at parenthood--and at boosting the world's census of about 1,120 giant pandas--were ultimately unsuccessful. Ling-Ling gave birth to five cubs, but they all died. Ling-Ling died in 1992.

The death of Hsing--as many affectionately called him--leaves only five of the endangered creatures in U.S. zoos. Atlanta and San Diego have his-and-her pandas, and the California couple has a 3-month-old cub.

So the Washington zoo's attempt to get replacement pandas, which was already underway, gains a new urgency. The zoo has offered China $2.5 million for a long-term loan of a panda pair, but officials in that country are holding out for at least $8 million.

While wildlife experts and world leaders debate the fate of Washington's panda prospects, the zoo's Panda House will be kept open to educate visitors. And in a year or more, the remains of Hsing-Hsing will go on display at the Natural History Museum as part of an exhibit on pandas' native bamboo forests.

But at the zoo, Hsing-Hsing's death left sadness among children and adults alike. "There was something very--I don't know--touching about the panda story," said visitor Sarah Gibson, 34. "I spent a lot of time walking through the exhibit and reading all the information. He was always just a favorite. He seemed like such a sweetheart."

Exxon and Mobil Oil Giants Reunite After 88 Years, Causing Uncertainty Among 2,000 Workers in Fairfax

Somewhere, somehow, John D. Rockefeller just might be smiling now.

In 1911, monopoly busters smashed his Standard Oil into more than 30 competing pieces. In the waning days of 1999, the two largest companies--Exxon Corp. and Fairfax-based Mobil Corp.--are back together. The new corporate giant, to be known as Exxon Mobil Corp., won't be large enough to manipulate prices at the pump, regulators said in approving Exxon's $81 billion purchase.

You may have noticed which company got top billing in the new name. And that's making many of Mobil's 2,000 Fairfax County employees nervous. The new company will be based in Irving, Tex., and Exxon employees are expected to get 60 percent of the jobs company-wide, mirroring the two giants' relative sizes.

But the new outfit isn't pulling out of Fairfax; its headquarters on Gallows Road will serve as its center of refining and marketing. All the same, Exxon Mobil is downsizing, although it's not yet clear how many Mobil employees in Fairfax will be offered severance packages, how many will stay put and who will be offered jobs in Texas or elsewhere.

And the familiar Mobil signs aren't likely to disappear any time soon. The logo--complete with bright red "O"--could remain outside some gas stations for five to 10 years after the merger.

CAPTION: Hsing-Hsing recovers from surgery in 1997.

CAPTION: Exxon Mobil Chairman Lee R. Raymond makes point at New York Stock Exchange.