Prince George's County Council Chairman Francis White put into his personal bank account $2,870 from a total of $9,100 he collected from county developers, lawyers, businessmen and others who were told their contributions were for a newsletter and other council-related expenses.
The money was raised at a testimonial breakfast White held in November 1975. He received a check for the $2,870 in 1978, three days after a fellow County Council member introduced a bill prohibiting the personal use of testimonial funds.
In a statement he filed voluntarily with the county clerk, the council chairman said he considered the money "reimbursement for a part of Proper Councilman expenses." The statement did not detail the expenses, but White said in an interview that they involved "costs for gasoline and entertainment that were above and beyond I had available." He said he did not have receipts for these costs.
White said he found nothing improper in his actons. "There is no law restraining how I use the money. I have been a longtime supporter of public disclosure and I have disclosed beyond the call o duty."
White said he would report the extra money on his 1978 income tax return and that he would "probably" use some of it to publish another edition of his infrequent newsletter - "Words from White."
The inch-thick financial disclosure statement White filed this week showed that he spent about one-third of the $9,100 he raised at the 1975 "postage stamp" testimonial breakfast to pay for one edition of the newsletter.
Another third was used for matters that, while not required of a County Council member, serve to enhance a politician's public standing.These diverse expenses included buying flowers for constituents, holding memberships in various fraternal organizations, buying subscriptions to newspapers and journals, attending luncheons and dinners and contributing to other political clubs and candidates.
The final third of the money went to White himself in a personal check from the Friends of Francis White Communications Fund, in the amount of $2,870.93. The check was dated March 10, 1978. Three days earlier, council member Gerard McDonough sponsored a county bill, banning personal use of such funds.
Although the county Democratic Party platform on which White ran in 1974 discouraged nonelection year testimonials, there is currently no county or state law prohibiting them or regulating how the money can be used. McDonough's bill is still in a council committee.
Election campaign fund raising and spending is by contrast, strictly controlled by law.
Testimonial events for officials held during nonelection years have become an embarrassment to county Democratic leaders. Sheriff Don Edward Ansell, a Democrat, was recently found innocent of charges o fmisappropriating funds from a 1975 "Deputy of the Year" testimonial.
When White was elected council chairman last December, three of his colleagues publicly questioned the propriety of his testimonials. "The money came from people who had an interest in past and pending legislations," council member Samuel Bogley said at the time. "That, to me, is unfair." The council is the final authority ion most zoning matters.
Country Executive Winfield Kelly, who supported White for the chairmanship, said yesterday that he "philosophically disagreed" with White's use of the testimonials. Kelly, who will be instrumental to forming the Democratic ticket for the 1978 election, said he expected "questions to be raised" during the ticket-forming process about White's handling of the testimonial.
White, 55, is a former mayor of Greenbelt who recently completed a term as chairman of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
The 1975 testimonial was necessary, White said, because his public stipend (about $28,000 a year when his council salary and Metro salary are combined) is not sufficient for him to "properly serve the public." He said his private engineering firm did not do any business in 1977.
White was the only County Council member to hold a testimonial event after the 1974 election. "Everyone of the items I used the money for," he said, "is a legitimate expense of the office."
White's top aide, Eileen Stephens, said those who criticized her boss were "idiots who don't have nearly the decency or honesty of Chairman White. I think we've gone overboard on public disclosure around here," she said.
White's statement revealed that he used the money raided at the 1975 testimonial for eight general purposes:
$1,127 to cover the cost of the fund-raiser at the Ramada Inn on Rte. 450. Included in this cost was $311 reimbursed to White for gasoline and postage and $355 given to Stephens for her assistance.
$389 for contributions t various county clubs and fraternal and civic orgarnizations, including the Prince George's Armed Forces Memorial Committee, American Legion, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89, Women's Political Caucus, Miazza Garden Memorial United Way, Bowie YMCA and Neighborhoods United Project.
$645 to political candidates and clubs. Among these contributions was a $25 check to Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) in 1976, when Sarbanes was seeking election. Federal candidates are not allowed to receive money from corporations. A substantial portion of White's testimonial funds came from corporations. The transfer of corporate money to another candidate is prohibited by federal law.
$334.50 for dinners and luncheons that White appropriated from his Communications Fund. He attended functions held by Prince George's Public Relations Associations, Federation of Park and Recreation Councils, Bullets-Caps Luncheon, Washington Caps Lucheon, Greenbelt Lions Club, Retirement Committee, American Express, Metro Gulf Tour, Laurel Area Chamber of Commerce, Board of Realtors, Aloha Luau and Greenbelt Junior High School.
On 11 separate occasions, White sent flowers to constituents at a total cost of $188.
$120 for six newspapers and journals.
$105 for memberships in the American Legion, College Park Moose Lodge, Mental Health Association, Greenbelt Lions Club, University of Maryland Alumni Association and Coalition for Support of the Handicapped.
$2,659 for publication and distribution of his newsletter, a four-page tabloid dated February 1977.
White said the newsletter is a "good tool" to keep the public informed. He has used that tool once in the past four years. Meanwhile, at public expense, White has sent a weekly "Words from White" column to the local newspapers in Prince George's.