For the first 18 months of his tenture as Montgomery County executive, Charles Gilchrist's every major action seemed motivated by a desire to avoid publicity and controversy. When the police chief talked too much, Gilchrist fired him. When the County Council complained that he was paying new department heads too much money, Gilchrist installed a special committee to study it. And when he got wind that a reporter was investigating the county liquor department, Gilchrist hired a consultant to do the same.
His aversion to the public glare became almost legendary in the Maryland suburbs.Political wags in neighboring Prince George's County would tell the story of how Gilchrist awakened every morning, read the newspaper and mutered, "Thank God for Larry Hogan," the fellow executive whose fiery personality resulted in headlines on an almost daily basis, while Gilchrist happily assumed the role of Charlie the Obscure.
Those days ended a few months ago.
To his grave consternation, Charlie Gilchrist has been making almost as many headlines as Larry Hogan lately. Week after week, the county and metropolitan newspaper have published accounts of the close ties between the Gilchrist administration and Schenley Industries Inc., a New York-based liquor firm that gets a large amount of business from the Department of Liquor Control, which serves as the wholesaler for all liquor sold in the county. The local papers even felt compelled to dub the affair "Liquorgate," connoting a special flavor of sleaziness uncommon in the Good Government realm of Montgomery.
The officials in Prince George's have been following the saga with an emotion approaching glee. Last month, at a convention in Ocean City, they spoke with anticipation of their next meeting with Gilchrist at which they would inform him that Larry Hogan Wakes up every morning, reads the newspapers, and thanks God for Charlie Gilchrist. These Prince George's folks, accustomed to their own minor scandals, see the liquor storm as a petty problem, part of a long day's work.
But Gilchrist and his associates in Montgomery have difficulty being so sanguine. They carry the burden of operating in a traditionally corruption-free county where the liquor difficulty stands out as a dark splotch on a clean cloth.
Thus it is with a dead-serious face that Gilchrist has transported himself to the offices of newspaper editors in recent days, carrying with him a sheath of documents and an uncharacteristic yearning to meet the press. At one such meeting, Gilchrist spoke in almost confessional tones, admitting that as many points during the liquor saga he wasn't sure what to do, that he had done things against his own better instincts at times and at other times overreacted out of confusion. "I'll admit," said Gilchrist, "that out of frustration I made some mistakes."
In a sense, the liquor saga has told more about Charles Gilchrist than it has about the liquor agency. It serves as a prime example of how Gilchrist's preoccupation with avoiding adverse publicity has created more problems than he appeared to have in the first place.
The trouble began in February, when the Gilchrist administration hired Frank Orifici, a former Schenley salesman, to serve as deputy director of the liquor control department. The fact that Orifici would be buying liquor from his old farm sparked some questions from the press.Then it was learned that Orifici was related to two other liquor salesmen who did business with the county and that his wife's uncle, Charles Buscher, had served at different times as a Schenley vice president and as the liquor agency's boss. A revolving door pattern was emerging.
When Gilchrist discovered that The Washington Post was investigating the Schenley connection, he decided to head off the reporter by hiring a consultant, former liquor wholsesaler Leanard Colondny, to conduct a study of the department's purchasing practices. "That," Gilchrist would later say, "was my first mistake."
Leonard Colodny was not your average suit-and-vest consultant. He was one of suburban Maryland's more colorful political roustabouts, of power for years. His own political ventures often ended in failure, but he had an uncanny talent for knowing who was doing what to whom and why and how.He was, in essence, a product of Prince George's and he was utterly unlike Gilchrist. But Gilchrist apparently knew none of that,
All Gilchrist knew, when he first thoght of hiring Colodny, was that he was a close associate of state Del. Ida Ruben and that his mother, Ethel Colodny, was a Democratic precinct captain in eastern Montgomery who was good at getting elderly women to press the voting lever for Charles Gilchrist. He also knew that Colodny had been badgering him about the possibility of getting a job there, for several months.
So he hired him to do the study. It seemed like the easiest way to solve two headaches -- Colodny's pestering and the questions from the press.
Almost immediately, Gilchrist had misgivings about what he had done. Colodny, the executive recalled later, "was running around like he was Inspector Clouseau" -- here demanding that the police show him all their records, there asking the prosecutors to launch a grand jury probe.
Then, in August, came the explosion.At a Rockville press conference where he presented his findings on the Schenley-liquor agency connection, Colodny told a gathering of reporters that Gilchrist and his aides had ordered him to change his conclusions. He said they had asked him to "rethink" his figures.
After the press conference, the reporters, more accustomed to writing about sludge than scandal trooped up to Gilchrist's office. There, he angrily denied that he or any of his aides had asked Colodny to "rethink" his figures, but admitted that he disagreed with his consultant's main finding that Schenley received an inordinate and perhaps inappropriate amount of business from the county.
Suddenly, without warning, Gilchrist flung his pen. "It comes out that we asked him to rethink his figures," Gilchrist bellowed as though he had been struck by a headline. "People's motives and integrity are being questioned. "It's days like this I just want to quit. It disgusts me."
It was an unGilchrist-like performance, so much so that many who observed it openly wondered whether Gilchrist was sincere or had been putting on an act of outrage because, for once, he wanted to be quoted in the press. But county liquor records make it clear that Schenley was getting more business than would be natural.
The next day, Gilchrist and his aides met and discussed whether they should shut Colodny up once and for all by firing him. Charles Maier, the executive's veteran press aide, pushed for Colodny's immediate dismissal, arguing that "that way there'll be one more story and we'll get it over with. But Gilchrist wasn't ready for the open warfare such an act might inspire. Instead, he wrote a letter to Colodny saying he expected him to continue his investigation Two days later, after Colodny had criticized the man who had hired him once again, Gilchrist finally fired him.
The County Council had been on vacation during all of this action. When they returned, Gilchrist called a private session with them and said that he had made a mistake in hiring Colodny who, in his opinion, had done a "hatchet job" on the liquor agency and Schenley. He suggested that the council appoint another consultant to investigate the matter once again.
Most council members appeared sympathetic to Gilchrist. As they and Gilchrist saw it, the problem was not that the Department of Liquor Control had been giving lots of business to its friends at Schenley. The problem was the newspaper and television stories about Colodny's findings.Said Councilman Neil Potter: "We made the mistake of hiring someone who flung a lot of mud around. Now we had to hire someone who will pick up the mud."
It was at that point, after Gilchrist had asked the council to hire a new consultant, that he gathered up his administrative assistant, Robert Wilson, and the county attorney, Paul McGuckian, for a travelling road show to the newspaper offices.
At every stop, Gilchrist presented himself as an earnest man whose motives had somehow been misinterpreted. He admitted that he had allowed Charles Buscher, the former Schenley vice president, to become one of his close advisers on liquor matters even though there might have been a conflict of interest in that role. "I just thought of Charles as a nice elderly gentleman who needed something to do in his spare time," said Gilchrist. "The thought that he might somehow take advantage of the situation never crossed my mind."
It is not for nothing that Gilchrist's nickname for many years has been "Good Ole Charlie." From taking Buscher under his wing to hiring Colondy, Gilchrist's actions are those of a politician who fears making enemies. In his earlier years, as a state senator in Annapolis, this trait served him well. One year, for example, Gilchrist sponsored a bill to increase the tax on high-tar cigarettes, a piece of legislation that had the powerful tobacco-growers lobby grunting and fuming.
Rarely did any bill opposed by the tobacco interests survive even a committee vote at the State House, but Gilchrist's did. When it reached the floor of the Senate, the late Sen. Ed Hall, champion of the "bacca" crowd, rose from his seat to complain that the only reason the bill got that far was because the person sponsoring it was such a nice guy that nobody in committee wanted to vote against it.
Said state Sen. Victor Crawford, a fellow Democrat from Montgomery: "Gilchrist was one of the people in the Senate that everyone truly liked. He was pleasant, accommodating and accessible."
But this same willingness to be accommodating has at times gotten Gilchrist into trouble in his new role as executive. To accommodate Robert Wilson, the veteran administrator whom Gilchrist wanted to serve as his right-had man, Gilchrist decided to pay Wilson $5,000 more than the council had authorized for the position. Gilchrist, when called on the issue, said Wilson needed the money for retirement because he did not qualify for the county's regular retirement program. The county attorney, however, said Gilchrist had no legal authority to give Wilson the extra money.
There is also an accommodating streak in Gilchrist's young aide, Gerry Evans, who is to Gilchrist what young and brash John Lally was to former Prince George's County Executive Winfield Kelly Jr. -- an ambituous subaltern who will do whatever the boss desires, and sometimes more, Evans, for instance, has been known to call the county health department to suggest that the inspectors there not close down certain restaurants that have failed inspection.Invariably, the restaurants are owned by friends or political contributors of Gilchrist.
"I just say that if they're going to close down a place, shouldn't we have a supervisor check it?" said Evans. "Why should a place close down because of one inspector?"
Gilchrist tolerates such actions by his assistants. In fact, he confesses to being more of an old-fashioned, patronage-oriented politician than many of his colleagues in Montgomery. But he likes the give-and-take of politics only in moderation, and only if it can be accomplished without much adverse publicity. Indeed, there is a story often told in Montgomery County that shows just how deeply Gilchrist and his young aides feel about his image.
Once or twice a week, Gilchrist and another aide, Tom Stone, would sit in the executive's office and together read the local newspapers spread out on a desk.
"That's a good story," Stone would say, pointing to an article that struck him as presenting the county executive in a positive light. "That's a bad story," Stone would say, pointing to one that did not seem quite as flattering. When Stone was unhappy with a reporter about it. Once, not only did Stone take issue with a story, he also did not like a quote that appeared in it. The quote was from Gilchrist spokesman, Charles Maier. "Gilchrist," Maier was quoted as saying, "is a friendly guy."
"Why friendly?" Stone later asked Maier, humorlessly. "Why not very friendly? Why not super friendly?"