The former head of Montgomery County's liquor sales operation has agreed to plead guilty Friday to misconduct in office, misappropriating funds and felony theft, according to court papers.
Under an agreement filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court, prosecutors are recommending no jail time for Howard L. Cook, a longtime fixture in Montgomery County politics. Cook headed the county's Department of Liquor Control before he was forced to leave in February.
The agreement, signed by Cook's defense attorney and a county prosecutor, requires Cook to make full restitution to his alleged victims: the county and a local bank.
Prosecutors filed the charges last month but made no announcement at the time. The hearing on the plea deal is scheduled for Friday, just before the courts shut down for the long holiday weekend.
Cook faces a possible penalty of up to 21 years in jail, according to the state's attorney's office. Maryland sentencing guidelines, however, recommend a sentence ranging from probation to six months in jail. Cook, 70, has no prior criminal record and is in poor health.
The deal could bring to a close a situation that touched the highest echelons of Montgomery County politics and severed a once-tight relationship between the county's ambitious chief executive and one of its most powerful state legislators.
Cook is the longtime companion of Del. Sheila Ellis Hixson (D-Montgomery), who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee and was once a mentor to County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D).
Through a spokesman, Duncan declined to comment. Hixson did not return calls seeking comment. Cook's attorneys issued a statement saying he was "actively cooperating with the Office of the State's Attorney."
In 1997, Duncan appointed Cook director of the Montgomery liquor operation, which last year made the county $17 million. It was also Duncan who asked the state's attorney to investigate Cook. The request was made after administration officials alleged that Cook violated county policy by charging thousands of dollars in personal expenses to a county credit card, failed to properly reimburse the county for travel and used county funds to purchase $2,000 in postage for personal use.
In the past, Cook has denied wrongdoing, and court papers contained scant details about the basis for the misdemeanor charges of misconduct in office and misappropriation of county funds. It appears that the felony theft charge is unrelated to Cook's tenure at the liquor control agency.
That charge, the most serious, alleges that sometime between May 10 and May 17, Cook "unlawfully did steal U.S. Currency, the property of Damascus Community Bank, having the value of five hundred dollars or greater." By that time, Cook no longer worked for the county; he was relieved of his duties in February and fired in April.
In a statement yesterday, Cook's attorneys said the charge involved a "complex overseas financial transaction" that is "completely unrelated to his service with the Montgomery County government."
Cook's attorneys, Timothy F. Maloney, of Greenbelt, and Paul F. Kemp, of Rockville, said, "The charging document has been filed in anticipation of an agreement to resolve this matter, as well as all matters arising from his service with the Montgomery County government."
According to county officials, Cook has repaid the county about $3,800 in travel expenses and paid off his county credit card. As to the charges involving the Damascus Community Bank, the bank executive vice president, Cynthia Cervanka, said she was "not at liberty to discuss the matter."
State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler would only say, "We expect to resolve this on Friday, and then the public will know what we know."
The ties between Duncan and Hixson go back to at least 1978, when Duncan helped Hixson in her campaign for delegate. The next year, when Duncan took his future wife on their first date, it was to hear Hixson speak. Hixson, in turn, helped Duncan as he made his way from Rockville City Council member to mayor and, in 1994, to county executive.
Two years later, Duncan's administration gave Cook a no-bid, $60,000 consulting contract to study privatizing the county's one-of-a-kind control over the distribution and sale of alcohol. Through his lobbying firm, Cook became a leading contributor to Duncan's reelection campaign.
In 1997, with the privatization effort effectively dead, Duncan appointed Cook director of the Department of Liquor Control, a job that paid $111,518 a year.
Cook promoted Lynn Duncan, the county executive's sister-in-law, to administrative service coordinator in 1999. Her salary increased from $50,340 to $72,268. Meanwhile, Hixson was one of Duncan's lifelines in Annapolis, helping push through money for projects Duncan considered important.
Back in Montgomery, records show that Cook received counseling -- but little more -- about his use of county credit cards until a department employee complained about Cook's travel and expense reimbursements.
After the criminal investigation of Cook, Hixson, who had been the only state lawmaker to back Duncan in his now-abandoned plan to run for governor, decided to support Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D).