WHAT ABOUT those purchases of two parcels of land from Fred C. Wineland, former Maryland secretary of state and a longtime Prince George's political leader? Zoning changes introduced by Prince George's County Council member Sue V. Mills had greatly increased the value of the parcels -- changes she pressed because Mr. Wineland planned to build senior citizen housing on the sites. But no such housing was ever built. One parcel was bought by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and the county council approved the purchase of the second -- both for $1.1 million.
The purchases were curious. One parcel was bought for use as a commuter parking lot, even though nearby land was available at lower cost. The second parcel was to have been used to expand a park but was swapped for land worth substantially less in order to prohibit further development along Route 301. Mrs. Mills now describes these transactions as "shameful" and "indefensible." She says she feels that she was used and that the deals amounted to favors for a political family. Mr. Wineland says that is untrue, declaring that the deals "were certainly public over a long period of time."
Mrs. Mills had fewer problems with a situation involving her husband, who gained a last-minute, commercial-use zoning change from the county council in 1985 for land in Oxon Hill. The change increased the land's value by more than 500 percent. Mrs. Mills says that the council's procedures in approving this zoning change were "totally open and done in front of a roomful of people," adding that she abstained from the vote and left the room to avoid any conflict of interest.
Were these three transactions illegal? Alex Williams, the Prince George's state's attorney, apparently saw no reason to pursue the matter further. A county grand jury reviewed the Wineland deals, and its findings were reviewed by Maryland State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli, who saw no basis for a criminal investigation. But a grand jury, which did not look specifically into the Mills deal, did produce a report last March criticizing the county government for land transactions that gave an appearance of impropriety. Such appearances are extremely damaging. The way to prevent them is simply to avoid deals involving a land purchase or zoning change that benefits the family of a council member or someone who is politically well connected.