Montgomery County Executive Charles Gilchrist conceded yesterday that a controversial critic of his administration was offered several jobs working for the county but insisted the offers were made with the implicit understanding that the critic later would be subject to the normal criteria of the county merit system.
"We never offered a job other than in the context of the merit system," Gilchrist told a crowded news conference.
Faced with the disclosure of secret tapes on which two of his aides are heard telling Leonard I. Colodny that he could have several different jobs if he wanted them, Gilchrist appeared to contradict his previous assertion that he and his aides never had offered Colodny merit jobs. The county executive sought to explain the contradiction by coming up with a stricter definition of a job offer.
A job offer, he said, occurs when the personnel office tells a job applicant he has received a job and asks the applicant to come in and sign a contract. "We never gave him a contract," said Gilchrist, referring to Colodny.
The controversy over Colodny, a one-time political ally who later became a sharp critic of the Gilchrist administration's handling of the county Department of Liquor Control, took a new turn with the disclosure of taped telephone conversations made last February in which two of Gilchrist's aides, Gerry Evans and Robert Wilson, offered Colodny jobs that by law must be filled through the merit system. The existence of the tapes was disclosed in yesterday's editions of The Washington Post.
As a special consultant to Gilchrist -- a job he accepted several months after his conversations with the county executive's aides and lost when Gilchrist fired him -- Colodny has been a central figure in "Liquorgate," an all-encompassing nickname for allegations of conflict of interest and favoritism in the operation of the department of liquor control.
In the wake of the latest disclosure, participants in the normally placid world of Montgomery government expressed disbelief over the Gilchrist administration's handling of things. "It's like a low-class Greek tragedy," said council member Esther Gelman. "Don't they know anything about Watergate?"
Council member Rose Crenca said the scandal had been compounded all along by "less than full disclosure."
"Gilchrist didn't take command of the situation and make a full disclosure," Crenca said. "Taken alone, a lot of the things that have happened wouldn't have been so bad. Gilchrist has not been sensitive enough to what is expected of him in the eyes of the public."
Under county law, all the jobs Colodny was offered are merit jobs. They therefore must be advertised and the county personnel office must choose persons eligible for the job from applications submitted to the office. The basis for selection must be qualifications, not friendship. Colodny never applied for any of the jobs he was offered.
It was a beleaguered but still combative Gilchrist who emerged from his executive suite, stripped of his coat and sat down before reporters and TV cameras to assert that he had not dishonored Montgomery's good government traditions or compromised the integrity of the county's merit system.
Although he accepted part of the blame for the controversy, he laid the bulk of it on the press corps' appetite for stories.
Gilchrist also leveled another heated attack on Colodny, the consultant he hired last May to investigate the liquor department.
"It's ridiculous that I should let a disgruntled job seeker who likes to shoot his mouth off to newspapers bog down my afternoon," Gilchrist snapped.
Asked why he had made such an effort to find a job for Colodny, whose mother is a county Democratic precinct chairman, Gilchrist responded: "We felt we owed it to him. He was persistent, he talked incessantly and there was tremendous pressure from various delegates to help him out. He's an incredibly persistent and obsessed person."
Joining Gilchrist at the news conference was a somber-faced Evans, his special assistant, whose conversations last February with Colodny were tape-recorded.
In an interview after the news conference, Gilchrist said he regretted what he terms "intemperate" statements attributed to Evans in the tapes. Gilchrist said he had not considered asking for Evans' resignation but would curtail Evans' responsibilities.
"For his sake and for my sake I am going to make it clear that he is not going to be involved in this sort of thing again," Gilchrist said.
For his part, Evans said Colodny was a persistent job seeker, and "I told him I could give him a job when really I couldn't (just) to get him off my back."
Gilchrist and Evans said they sometimes recommend certain persons to department heads for jobs. Neither could give examples of times when they recommended a person for a job and the person did not get it.
Robert Wilson, the county's chief administrative officer and the other aide whose conversation with Colodny was recorded, acknowledged that he asked Colodny if he was interested in a merit job. He said his "intent" had been to ask Colodny if he was interested in applying for a merit job.
In two of the recorded conversations, Evans offered Colodny two merit jobs: assistant director of Civil Defense and assistant manager of a liquor store. In another conversation, Wilson offered Colodny the assistant managership of a liquor store and in a fourth conversation, Evans indicated that Gilchrist himself had offered Colodny a merit job.
Yesterday, Gilchrist said the proof that Colodny was not "truly" offered a merit job was in the fact that he did not get a job. "If a true offer had been made," Gilchrist said "he would be a Montgomery County employe."
One of the jobs Colodny was offered -- assistant chief of the Department of Liquor Control's stores, was frozen because of budget cuts. Colodny declined the other two job offers -- assistant manager of a liquor store and deputy director of Civil Defense.
Yesterday, when a reporter reminded Gilchrist that Colodny was not a county employe because he had declined two of the jobs, Gilchrist said, "Perhaps that might be but we were offering him low-level jobs there, that's where we thought he fit in".
Gilchrist allowed that he had not handled the Liquorgate scandle very well, but said "you all love every bit of it. We talked about putting out a white paper, but the thing expanded so fast. Every day another story comes up."
Montgomery state's attorney Andrew Sonner said that there were no criminal penalties for merit violations, and implied that charges of merit law violations will not be investigated by the grand jury looking into allegations of bribes and questionable purchasing practices by the Department of Liquor Control."
In addition to the grand jury investigation, the county personnel board has hired a lawyer to investigate possible violations of merit laws in the liquor controversy, and the county council has spent more than $100,000 on an auditing firm, Touche Ross, to see whether Colodny made any mistakes in his computations showing that the Department of Liquor Control has shown favoritism in purchasing practices.