At a meeting in his state office last September, Francis B. (Bill) Burch, then attorney general of Maryland, encouraged a group of Montgomery Ward officials to ask the legislature for a law to solve a problem that threatens to cost their firm about $2 million a year in business.
Four months later, Burch, now a private attorney, got a telephone call from one of Ward's officials asking him to lobby for just such a bill in this session of the General Assembly. Burch, less than a month out of public office, took the job.
In his new role, Burch has returned to his old state office and called past aides several times, soliciting their support for his bill - an unusual practice for a lobbyist. In the process, he has angered some of his former assistants.
"He gets a little careless at times," said Assistant Attorney General Charles Monk, whom Burch misquoted in a well distributed memorandum as favoring the Ward's bill. "He was attorney general for a long time and it's hard for him to realize he's not attorney general anymore and I'm not his assistant anymore."
Burch's swift passage from chief legal officer of Maryland to special interest lobbyist also has concerned some state legislators who were surprised to find the three-term attorney general pushing his bill in the corridors of Annapolis so soon after leaving public office.
"There's no place for someone who was in such a sensitive position to lobby on any issue for a fee," said Del. David Shapiro, who voted against the measure in House committee. "It's conceivable that a person in office can make changes and then try to reverse the changes for a fee when he leaves office."
Burch dismisses the criticism as unfair, saying he merely is trying to earn a decent living as a lawyer after "years of sacrifice in public service." He sees nothing improper, he added, in representing a client who had previously sought his help when he was attorney general.
"This is part of growing up," he explained. "Every time you meet people at one time of your life and they are impressed with you, they're going to come back to see you in the next phase of your life. What's wrong with getting the benefit of it if you did a good job?"
That argument is a common refrain in Annapolis where dozens of former state officials and legislators routinely swing through the revolving doors of government and industry. They can be seen moving freely through the hallways and lounges, pushing legislation for business they once regulated.
What makes the Burch story unique in the minds of some lawmakers and former aides is his recent contract with Ward as a public official and his past association with the type of legislation he is now promoting - a bill that would exempt his client from the Maryland oil company divestiture act of 1974.
Burch personally defended the same divestiture act before the U.S. Supreme Court just a year ago. The law, passed in the wake of the 1973 gas crisis, requires oil companies to stop operating and give up ownership of their retail service stations by this July.
The law extends to Ward because it is owned by Mobil Corp., the parent firm of Mobil Oil Co. Ward operates seven auto service outlets in Maryland.
"For Burch to deal just a couple of years ago with this controversial issue of divestiture," said De. Shapiro, "and then leave office and take a fee from an interest he once was opposed to - that has the appearance of impropriety."
Shapiro was so angry when Burch appeared to testify for his bill that he left the committee room fuming and muttering, "I'm floored." An amended version of the bill passed the committee by a large margin and was overwhelmingly approved by the entire House last week.
The measure is now expected to come up for a vote in the Senate early this week.
Burch said the original law was never intended to apply to companies like Ward which derive a relatively small percentage of gross revenues from the sale of petroleum products - just $1.9 million of the company's $276 million in gross receipts came from the sale of oil products in 1977. More over, Ward does not get its gas from its sister company, Mobil Oil.
"The truth is I'm not on the other side of the fence," he insisted, pointing out that in his arguments before the Supreme Court, he said that the divestiture law has no significance for firms like Ward that operate small automotive service stations.
That essentially was the position of Ward officials when they met at their request in Burch's office last September and asked the attorney general if their company could be exempted from the law through the regulations then being drafted by the attorney general's antitrust division.
Burch, who had withdrawn as a candidate for governor two months earlier of his term, invited the head of the antitrust division at the time, Thomas Wilson, and Deputy Attorney General George Nilson to join the meeting with the Ward officials.
At the outset, according to Nilson, Burch "was sympathetic to their problem. He would've liked to solve their problem by regulation. We all felt that Monkey Ward was getting killed by the Maryland law and that it wasn't really designed to affect them."
It was nonetheless obvious, Nilson said, that the law covered all businesses affiliated with oil companies, including Ward. The only way to get an exclusion, Nilson and Wilson concluded at the time, was through the legislature. At the end of the meeting Burch concurred.
We all told 'em the place to get a solution is in the General Assembly," recalled Nilson. "Bill [Burch] was encouraging them to take that route."
The next contact Burch says he had with Ward was in late Jannuary when the company's regional counsel, Joseph Petr, called him at his new downtown Baltimore law office and asked if he would be willing to lobby for a bill that would exempt Ward from the 1974 law.
"I sorta felt [at the September meeting] that he didn't think the thing should be applied to us," said Petr. "I didn't know anybody well-versed enough to go before the legislature to answer questions. I figured the best one would be the guy who argued the case in the first place."
For Burch, the call did not come as a complete surprise. Although he claims the September meeting had "nothing to do" with Petr's job offer, "I wasn't shocked that they called because they felt I know more about it than any anybody else. You go to the guy who's supposed to know the most."
Once he had the job - Burch said he is being paid an hourly rate but wouldn't reveal how much - he began trying to line up support for his bill in the attorney general's office, focusing his efforts on Nilson and Monk, who had recently been promoted to chief of the antitrust division.
Monk recalls that his former boss asked him twice what he thought of the Ward's bill - once in a telephone call and once in a personal visit to his office. "I told him I had no particular problem with it," Monk said.
As the hearing date approached, Burch called again and asked Monk to testify for the measure - a request he declined to honor until first discussing ti with the new attorney general Stephen H. Sachs. But Burch would not be put off.
"I got a sort of hurried call from him [Burch] sometime before the hearing," recalled Nilson, "and he said Charlie Monk was giving him a hard time on this Monkey Ward bill. He said, 'What the hell is going on. All I want him to do is come down and testify on the bill.'"
Such persistence is unusual for a special interest lobbyist, said Nilson, and the demands began to grate on some of Burch's former aides. "I feel awkward trying to deal with him at arm's length," he explained. "One can't help but feel you should be nice to him because he was your boss after all."
Monk's next encouter with the Ward bill turned out to be an unpleasant one. He received a call from an official in the comptroller's office who told him Burch had distributed a memorandum in which Monk was quoted as saying the measure "would have a pro-competitive impact for the consumer."
"That really ticked me off," said Monk, whose misquoted position ended up in the committee file on the bill. "I never said any such thing. I wrote him a letter and said I'd appreciate it if the showed me the thing before he ascribed it to me. He called and apologized."
Not only did Monk refuse to testify for the bill, he wrote a letter to the House committee considering the measure and saying the proposal "presents serious concerns" because it could "represent a substantial loophole, negating effective operation of the divestiture law."
Burch said the flap with Monk was "a misunderstanding" and he never intended to misrepresent his former aide's position. Moreover, he sees nothing peculiar about the requests he has made of his onetime assistants.
"I know the ropes and I intend to get every piece of business I can get as long as it's properly done," he said. "Why should I be in any other position as an attorney who can go to the attorney general and ask for his opinion. I never asked them to do anything improper.
"I intend to do whatever I think is proper for my client."