Members of a Prince George's County grand jury, acting without guidance from a prosecutor, discovered last year that county officials gave a developer a $1 million parcel of prime commercial property in Fort Washington in an even trade for a strip of land in a Bowie highway median.
The land swap, unearthed by the jurors in a search of county files, was one of three matters that deeply troubled the grand jury as it embarked on a seven-month, independent probe of allegations of improper land transactions by county officials. Court officials' disposition and handling of the probe -- which ended with no indictments -- have been criticized publicly by some grand jury members.
The grand jury was also looking into citizen complaints about whether the County Council should have spent $1.1 million to purchase an abandoned drive-in for a commuter parking lot. A county appraiser questioned whether the county should pay more than $100,000 per acre for the land when suitable land could be found nearby for $5,000 per acre.
The citizen complaints also had raised the question of favoritism because the property was owned by former Maryland secretary of state Fred C. Wineland, the father of council member F. Kirwan Wineland.
The grand jury also investigated complaints that a politically-active development company, the John Driggs Corp., was operating an unlicensed dump for construction materials near the Indian Head Highway. County attorneys had written a legal opinion authorizing Driggs's use of the 23-acre parcel, although Driggs had received a permit allowing the company only to grade and landscape the property.
"There was a great deal of wrongdoing. Whether it was illegal or simply poor judgement by county officials was hard to determine," said Paul Emmons, a grand juror who sat on a special subcommittee that looked into the complaints.
Fred Wineland and Driggs attorney John Miles said there was nothing illegal about the matters the grand jury was investigating.
Some frustrated jury members say they ended their term in March convinced that some of the charges warranted further scrutiny by trained criminal prosecutors. They say the grand jury -- which did not subpoena witnesses and reviewed only records available in public files -- operated with little day-to-day input from prosecutors.
Grand jury members say they undertook the probe on their own after prosecutors said they had little interest in pursuing citizen complaints about the matters. A grand jury is not limited to cases presented by prosecutors, although it is unusual for a grand jury to pursue an investigation without prosecutors' guidance. Eventually, the grand jury turned for help to Maryland State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli, but some members later criticized him for dropping the investigation.
In an interview, Prince George's State's Attorney Alex Williams (D) said some of the complaints had been circulating in his office and that of his predecessor, Arthur Bud Marshall, for years.
But he said he did not launch an inquiry into the matters because they "did not have specific teeth in them."
"We get letters every day from people making bold allegations with no specifics. We write back and say, 'Give us some specificity.' In any case where people are asking us to investigate, they need to give us something to go on," he said.
Montanarelli said he reviewed the grand jury's findings and found no basis for further investigation.
Jury foreman Clara Gouin said that when the grand jury convened last fall, it was immediately hit with letters from concerned citizens asking for an independent probe of the Wineland land sale and the Driggs dump.
The Wineland sale, which was negotiated in 1987, involved the purchase of the old Super Chief Drive-In on Swan Creek Road in Fort Washington for use as a commuter parking facility for up to 750 cars. Wineland said in an interview that there was nothing improper about the land sale, which he called open and aboveboard.
Prior to 1987, the county was leasing the property from the Wineland family, which hired prominent developer Kenneth H. Michael as its broker on the land sale. Michael provided the county with comparable real estate prices to justify the $1.1 million purchase price.
In a hurried transaction, the County Council passed emergency legislation on March 31, 1987, approving purchase of the parcel for $1.1 million with an additional $300,000 for initial improvements. The council gave no reason for the emergency action, which was done without a hearing. Council member Wineland was absent during the vote.
County documents show that the sale was completed despite questions by a county appraiser, Robert A. Donnelly, who suggested that the county consider other less-expensive properties for use as a parking lot.
Only a small part of the drive-in site was spread with gravel for use as a parking lot. Citizens who monitor the lot say no more than 50 cars use it on busy workdays.
Council member Frank P. Casula defended the council's passage of the emergency bill, saying there was a "pressing need for Park & Ride lots at that time."
"The only reason any questions are being raised about this is that Wineland's son is a county councilman, and that had nothing to do with it," he said.
While looking into the Wineland land sale, the grand jury also discovered that the Winelands owned another piece of land sold to the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission for $1.1 million.
The second parcel, which was zoned for commercial development, was at the site of the old ABC drive-in theater off Indian Head Highway in Fort Washington. The parks commission bought the 10-acre parcel in 1986 for a possible expansion of the Henson Creek Valley Stream Park.
In 1988, however, the county acquired the land from the parks commission and used it to negotiate a land swap with developer Robert Douglas Jr. of College Park.
Douglas, who had an option to buy four acres of property in the Route 301 median strip near Bowie, had threatened to sue the county over a new policy announced by County Executive Parris Glendening forbidding commercial development within the median. The site had been used as a gasoline station by the Stuart Petroleum Co. and had an estimated value of $300,000.
According to jurors who looked into the matter, the county executive's office offered the land to Douglas to ward off a lawsuit.
Deputy County Administrator John P. Davey last night defended the land swap, saying it was in keeping with a Glendening administration goal of obtaining and preserving the right-of-way to the median strip along Route 301.
He said county lawyers recommended the swap to settle a lawsuit brought by the developer.
In the Driggs Corp. matter, the jury heard evidence from citizens that a forest in Friendly was razed to create a landfill, and as many as 200 trucks a day were emptying construction rubble at the site, which is near a residential development. No public hearings were held before the dump was opened.
Driggs had secured a county permit allowing grading and landscaping at the site. When questioned, county officials said they had secured legal opinions allowing Driggs to continue the dumping.
Driggs attorney Miles said the company has engaged in no wrongdoing.