In 3 1/2 hours of carefully organized, low-key testimony interspersed with recollections of his childhood, Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel today held firmly to all of his previous statements that he did not know in 1972 of his friend's secret ownership of the Marlboro Race Track.
He acknowledged only that "perhaps" he could "have been more candid" when he finally did find out but that he had been "left in an exposed condition where I virtually couldn't defend myself."
Mandel had predictred once that today - as he took the witness stand to answer corruption charges that could send him to prison for years - would be "the most important in my life." Yet he was controlled throughout his testimony, occasionally spinning his vignettes of his early days in politics, his youth in Baltimore and his years in government.
His deept interest in racetracks - a corrupt interest in the view of federal prosecutors - dated from his days selling newspapers at the Pimlico Race Course in northwest Baltimore. "That was the beginning of my acquaintanceship with the racetrack," he said.
Mandel said his friends (now codefendants) had concealed their ownership of Marlboro from him until after he had taken actions as governor that would have benefited the track.By that time - the spring of 1975. Mandel said he felt that by completely leveling with the public he was "just going to bring, quite frankly, a storm of punlicity around my head . . . So I just didn't volunteer it."
What Mandel characterized as dissappointing deciet by his friends is the core of what the prosecution charges was a corrupt relationship. The friends - W. Dale Hess. Harry W. Rodgers III. William A. ROdgers. Irvin Kovens and Ernest N. Cory - allegedly gave the governor gifts worth over $350,000 in return for his promotion of legislation favorable to the track that they secretly owned.
Since his indictment 20 months ago, Mandel has been silent on the specifics of these allegations. In the next few days - shortened to 3 1/2 hours each because of Mandel's uncertain health - the governor is expected to go into more detail of his defense. He will be cross-examined by chief U.S. prosecutor, Barnet D. Skolnik.
Mandel's codefendants secretly purchased the Marlboro Race Track New Year's Eve. 1971, in the interim between a veto by the governor of a bill doubling the racing days at Marlboro and the legislative override of the veto in January, 1972, according to prosecutors. Handsome overnight profits allegedly resulted from that override, but Mandel said today he "absolutely did not" know his friends secretly owned the track then.
Years later all the friends but Kovens admitted owning the track but in their opening statements at the trial they said they kept it a secret from their close friend Mandel for fear of causing him "political embarassment."
That same 1972 session, the state Racing Commission proposed a bill - secretly co-authored by Hess, among others - that would have added 58 additional days to the Marlboro schedule.
Again, Mandel said, he "absolutely did not" know that his friends owned the track when he gave cursory approval of his racetrack consolidation bill.
"The presumption in my mind was . . . that this (additional 58 days) was more or lessa consolation prize to Gene Casey." Mandel explained. Casey was the front man for the secret owners and at the same time the real major stockholder in the Bowie Race Track, which was slated for eliminated as a track under the bill.
The bill failed on the last night of the session, but not without the hard work of Mandel's own lobbyists. Those men, Mandel testified, were only lobbying to help out the racing commissionner whose son had been badly hurt in a traffic accident.
Nothing he said during the opening 67 minutes of his testimony, however, touched on any of these matters. His attorneys Arnorld M. Weiner gracefully led the governor first through a journey back to his childhood when he remembered what an avid athlete he was, apparently to help explain Mandel's interest in horse racing.
"Both in high school and in college I played baseball. I boxed, I participated in just about every sport there was. I tried themm all," he said to Weiner's question.
He was a Maryland boy through and through, he told the jury of his peers from this state. Born in East Baltimore, "I lived in Baltimore City all my life." attending city schools and the University of Maryland and its law school.
Mandel also served in the U.S. Army during the World War II, part of a "cadre" that taught basic training in this country.
Mandel said he first heard that Hess and the Rodgerses had an interest in Bowie late in 1974.
After he was asked about Hess' possible involvement. "I called Mr. Hess and I asked Mr. Hess about it and I asked him if he or they owned any interest in Bowie Race Track, and he said no, they do not.
"I pursued it a little further by saying have you ever had any interest?" . . . and he said, "well, we had gotten in, but we got out."
Mandel said he concluded that "they had been involved in putting a transaction together for the Bowie Race Track, but after I had expressed as vehemently as I did my opposition that they might have been "Brokering it or a middle man . . . but were not involved in the ownership, and that was made clear to me," the governor testified.
Mandel lawyer Arnold M. Weiner answered "no" at a press conference on Feb. 6. 1975 to a question of whether he knew if Hess or Rodgers "then or had ever had a financial interest in racetracks."
"Can you tell us, sir, how you interpreted that question" so that he came up with a negative answer, Weiner said.
"The question was did I know that they had a financial interest in the racetrack." responded Mandel.
Weiner still helping his client, adked, "you interpreted financial interst meaning what?"
"That meant did they have an ownership interest in the racetrack and I said no," Mandel said.
"Weiner then asked, "was that a truthful answer as you understood it?" and his client said, "absolutely."
The governor added that his friends had served as brokers in the sale and admitted that "No sir, I did not" volunteer that information at the Feb. 6 press conference.
The governor, further prodded for details by the his lawyer, acknowledged that "in retrospect perhaps I could have been a little bit more candid."
Mandel said he didn't really learn about the actual purchase of hte track by his friends until it was reported in the footnote of the Maryland Racing Commission's annual reproit that was issued on March 14, 1975.
"That's exactly when I learned," he replied to another friendly question from Weiner.
After that report was made public, Mandel said he realized "I was going to be battered and beaten about something which I had nothing to do with."
He said he had "a twofold reaction, one of extreme anger, and the other of a real letdown," to that dilemma.
When Weiner asked "who did you feel that reaction about the most?" Mandel said it was "a joint reaction against some of my own friends."
"Do you mean Dale and Earry?" Weiner asked, to which Mandel said "yes." As a result, Mandel said relations with his long-time friends were "realy strained" to the point that "we had very little conversation, if any," for several weeks.
The thaw was broken by Harry Rodgers who had a "let's try to get this straightened out" dinner with his family and the governor's family.
At the dinner, Harry Rodger apologized. "that they hadn't informed me earlier about their ownership of the track "but the reason they hadn't was because of the very reason it happened."
Weiner asked for elaboration.
"They felt if I couldn't be involved, that I wouldn't suffer my kind of unfavorable publicity that did result, and that they were really trying to keep me from getting that kind of publicity, and at the same time, they didn't want the kind of publicity that resulted."
Hess and Harry Rodgers sat passively as their friend explained the predicament in which Mandel said they had put him, and smiled when the governor said "yes" he had forgiven them.
While Mandel crticized Harry Rodgers and Hess, he stuck up for another codefendant, his lifelong pal, Kovens, telling the jury that it was, and is, his belief that Kovens never had any interest in either Marlboro or Bowie.
Mandel said that at some time during the 1972 or 1973 legislative sessions, a senator asked him if Kovens were "in any way involved." so Mandel called Kovens and asked him.
"He told me 'absolutely not'" Mandel replied. "He said when he got out of Charles Town (a track in West Virginia that Kovens sold in 1977) he had a noncompetitive agreement that there was no way, for a long period of time, that he could possibly get involved because of that agreement, the fact that they still owed in a lot of money."
Mandel's preoccupation in the 1972 legislative sessin was not with hte race track consolidation, he testified, but with the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund that was the "most hotly contested bill in my history as legislator and governor . . . more lobbyists were signed up on the bill than in history, 40 some from around the country," he said.
Celebrating the final passage of that bill was the motive in his case for attending a dinner at the suite of Hesss during the last week of the session, he said.
That dinner was the only incident brought out in the prosecution's case where Mandel actively participated with a codefendant in discussing strategy for passing the race track consolidation bill.
Wednesday, however, a defense witness and lobbyist challenged that interpretation and today Mandel concurred with the lobbyist and said he spent most of the dinner with his friend Hess, talking about old legislative "battles."
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Of Nation Cohen, the prosecution witness who claimed that Mandel directed the session's vote-gaining strategy, the governor said: "He took little part (in the dinner conversation). I guess you'd say he was just not one of the boys with legislative background."
Mandel also claimed he did not actively support the bill until a House of Delegates committee "put some amendments back . . . to make it a true consolidation bill."
His interest in consolidation dated back to the '50s when he was a member of various commissions studying how to winnow the state's 11 tracks in surrounding states.
In those days the state's budget was $250 million and racetrack revenues were pretty substantial . . . now with a $3.5 billion budget they aren't quite as substantial," he said.
The governor's first day in te dock ended on an upbeat note for him, as he drew smiles and laughter from the jury describings his lifelong friendship with Kovens.
They grew up together, the governor said, and glancing at Kovens, added, "but I think he's a little older. He may not want to admit it, but he is." (Mandel is 57, Kovens 58).
Mandel also may have given a preview of how he expects to explain the gifts that prosecutors say were bribes that he accepted from the other defendants.
He recalled that he and his father were guests of Kovens at a hotel Kovens owned in Miami 20 years ago.
"It's that kind of a relationship. We have been many places together way before I was governor. way before I was speaker of the House. In fact, before I was in the legislature."
The two friends traveled often, to Cleveland to see a Colts-Brown football championship game, to World Series in New and elsewhere.
"Is it fair to say that as between the two of you. Mr. Kovens has been more successful financially?" Weiner asked, aware that Kovens net worth statement, admitted into evidence, showed a balance of about $9 million.
"If you move the little decimal point three places where the two zeroes are, that's where I am." Mandel said, and nearly everyone laughed.