A decision by former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley to purchase furniture from the governor’s mansion is creating some headaches back home -- including criticism from his Republican successor -- as he campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination.
When O’Malley and his family moved out of the mansion in January, they took dozens of items with them that his administration deemed “excess property,” according to state records. As first reported over the weekend by the Baltimore Sun, the family paid $9,638 for beds, chairs, desks, lamps, mirrors and other items from the mansion’s living quarters that originally cost taxpayers $62,000. Many of the pieces were eight years old or more, and they were discounted by administration officials to reflect their age.
O'Malley aides were quick to point out that his Republican predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., was given the benefit of a similar arrangement when he moved out, though Ehrlich's purchases were on a smaller scale.
O’Malley’s case has drawn more notice in part because of reports that the State Ethics Commission is reviewing the transactions at the request of a state lawyer. Officials said Monday, however, that O'Malley is not the subject of an ethics investigation, and that the commission has been asked for its advice on state policy in this area.
The Sun story raised questions about whether it was violation of state regulations for governors to be given a chance to buy state property without it being put up for bid and the public being notified. The state also has a policy against "preferential sales" of property to government officials.
Faced with those questions, a lawyer representing the Department of General Services on Friday sent a letter to the ethics commission seeking its input. In the letter, Turhan E. Robinson, an assistant attorney general, asks for “a determination on the propriety of sales of excess/used furniture to an outgoing public elected official.”
David Nitkin, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said Robinson was “seeking clarification” on a policy question facing the Department of General Services and “not seeking an investigation of a former governor, O’Malley or Ehrlich.” Robinson sought the advice so that he can better advise his client, Nitkin said. Robinson was said to be unavailable.
Michael W. Lord, executive director of the ethics commission, declined to comment, citing commission confidentiality rules. He would not even say whether the agency had received Robinson's letter, much less what actions it might take.
O’Malley’s campaign directed calls to John Griffin, O’Malley’s chief of staff before he left office, who called the episode an "intergovernmental procedural policy issue."
Griffin said the former governor had deferred to the authority of the Department of General Services and "followed their protocol and standard operating procedure that was consistent with at least one prior administration."
The furniture in question, he said, was found by a unit of the Department of General Services to be “close to the end of its useful life and authorized it to be thrown out -- junked.” According to Griffin, the O’Malleys offered to buy the furniture and a longtime state official computed a prorated value for the pieces they took.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, whose family moved in after O’Malley moved out, took to Facebook over the weekend to criticize O’Malley on the issue. The Republican wrote that “if they call that expensive, beautiful barely used furniture ‘junk,’ I’d hate to hear what they call the 20-year-old stuff I brought with me from my house to replace it all.”
Hogan, previously an Edgewater resident, also questioned why O’Malley would have taken the furniture to his new home in Baltimore if it was in such poor condition.
Hogan had more to say about the furniture on Monday.
"None of it would have been 'thrown out,' or surplussed, or sold in any manner," Hogan wrote. "Had it not all been removed a few days before we moved in, our intention would have been to leave all of it in place, just as it was, in the people's house."