Prince George's County Council member Sue V. Mills says the county engaged in "dirty deals" when it purchased land from former Maryland secretary of state Fred C. Wineland and said she was unwittingly responsible for inflating the value of the properties.
The purchases came under scrutiny by a recent county grand jury, which harshly criticized the transactions.
"We committed shameful acts," said Mills, who introduced zoning changes that increased the value of two abandoned drive-in theaters sold to the county by Wineland.
Wineland, a longtime Democratic Party leader in the county and the father of council member F. Kirwan Wineland, has previously defended the transactions as legal and aboveboard. "I saw nothing wrong with them. These two deals were certainly public over a long period of time," Wineland said.
Mills, however, said in an interview that in hindsight, she regards the transactions as favors to a powerful family. She said the County Council approved zoning changes that boosted the value of the land by as much as four times its original worth. Then, she said, the county bought the properties at the higher prices for dubious purposes.
"The purchase of both of these properties is indefensible. In the first place, what we were doing was wrong, and in the second place, I feel in hindsight that I was used. I'm ashamed that I allowed a fairly intelligent person to be used in this way," Mills said.
Mills, who has served on the council since 1982, said that early in her tenure, she introduced zoning changes for the properties at Fred Wineland's request, after receiving assurances that he intended to develop the sites for senior citizen housing. No such housing was developed, she said.
Fred Wineland could not be reached for comment on Mills's statements yesterday. His wife said he is traveling and will return later this week.
Other council members have publicly defended the purchases. Council member Frank P. Casula said the transactions came under scrutiny only because "Wineland's son is a county councilman, and that had nothing to do with it."
F. Kirwan Wineland, a former council aide who was elected in 1986 to succeed his boss, retiring council member William B. Amonett, did not sit on the council when one of the purchases was made or when the zoning changes were approved.
In 1987, he was recorded as absent during a session when the council approved an emergency measure to purchase one of the drive-in properties for $1.1 million and authorize an additional $300,000 in improvements. Prominent developer Kenneth H. Michael acted as a broker for Fred Wineland.
The site, the old Super Chief Drive-In on Swan Creek Road in Fort Washington, was bought for use as a commuter parking lot for up to 750 cars. A county appraiser advised the county that it was paying nearly $100,000 an acre for the land, when suitable property could be found nearby for $5,000 an acre.
Casula said emergency action was taken because there was a "pressing need for Park & Ride lots" at that time. Residents who now monitor the site say it typically is used by about 50 cars on busy workdays.
The Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission purchased another site owned by Fred Wineland -- the old ABC Drive-In off Indian Head Highway -- in 1986 for $1.1 million. The 10-acre site was ostensibly to be used for an expansion of the Henson Creek Stream Valley Park.
But in a controversial transaction, the land later was used by the county to settle a lawsuit brought by developer Robert Douglas Jr. In a transaction approved by the county executive's office, the county traded the prime commercial property for an old gasoline station site in a Bowie highway median.
The lawsuit came after the county initiated a new policy forbidding further commercial development in the median of Route 301. County officials say their decision to swap land with Douglas was in keeping with an initiative by the county to acquire and preserve the right of way along rapidly developing Route 301.
The land purchases came under scrutiny by a county grand jury that was convened in October. The grand jury returned no indictments, but in a report in March it harshly criticized the county government for its handling of land transactions, which, it said, sometimes gave an appearance of impropriety because they were not subject to public hearings or competitive bidding. The report did not criticize anyone by name and contained no specifics about the land transactions.
Based on complaints from the public, the grand jury undertook the probe on its own after Prince George's State's Attorney Alex Williams (D) declined to look into the matters. Williams said in an interview that he did not investigate the matters because they "did not have specific teeth in them."
Some grand jury members have complained that court officials improperly handled the case, including presiding county Circuit Court Judge Vincent Femia and Maryland State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli.
Femia disturbed some jurors by placing telephone calls to Fred Wineland and John Miles, a lawyer who represents the John Driggs Corp., a construction company that had come under scrutiny by a special grand jury panel for its dumping activities in the Fort Washington area. Both men are personal friends of the judge's.
Femia said that when the grand jury expressed a wish to issue subpoenas, he placed the calls to his longtime friends in an effort to obtain voluntary cooperation. He said Fred Wineland and Driggs officials agreed to appear voluntarily, but the jury -- which was worried about unfairly tarnishing reputations -- did not call them as witnesses. Miles said the company engaged in no wrongdoing.
Jurors say they did not ask Femia to place the phone calls, and one citizen activist, Stan Fetter, of Fort Washington, has filed a complaint with the state Judicial Disabilities Commission about Femia's conduct. Prosecutors say it is highly unusual for judges to contact subjects of a grand jury inquiry.
Montanarelli said he reviewed the jury's findings and saw no basis for a criminal investigation.
Some jurors say, however, that they were left with the impression that Montanarelli would use his trained criminal investigators to pursue unanswered questions. One juror, Charles E. Snyder, has complained to Gov. William Donald Schaefer about Montanarelli's handling of the matter.