Sunday, December 25, 2011

What the MD GOP Needs for Xmas: A Watchdog

By now, I think most anyone who follows Maryland politics has heard about the fact that Richard Stewart, a member of Governor O’Malley’s Redistricting Advisory Committee and the Maryland Stadium Authority, has been convicted in federal court of defrauding the IRS out of millions of dollars in taxes.

Stewart awaits sentencing in April. In addition to reimbursing the IRS for the unpaid taxes and penalties, Stewart is looking at up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

Stewart’s presence on both important panels is an outrage, of course. But for me, the most interesting facet of this story is how it broke. According to the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore County GOP Chairman Steve Kolbe played a key role in spreading the word:

Kolbe put Stewart's name into Google's search engine, he said, and was shocked when the first result was a link to the Department of Justice's website, where a release had been posted Dec. 15 saying Stewart had pleaded guilty to charges of failing to pay millions in taxes through his company, which installs plumbing, heating and air conditioning in commercial buildings and has offices in Baltimore and Capital Heights.

The release said Stewart had failed to "collect, truthfully account for and pay over" almost $4 million in employment taxes between 2003 and 2008, owed restitution to the IRS in excess of $5 million, and faces up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. "I thought, 'This can't be the same guy,' " Kolbe said.
When he poked around the Internet a bit more and found it was the same guy, Kolbe said his first thought was, "Well, I'm not going to go down and testify before a crooked commission."

His second thought was to spread the word.

Kolbe is relatively new to his duties, and was elected by the Baltimore County Central Committee after Tony Campbell's brief and controversial tenure. So it amazes me that this soft-spoken businessman, husband, and dad was able to unearth on his own something that at least two other political actors should have uncovered long ago.

The first, of course, is the O’Malley Administration. Both the governor and his spokespeople have stated that they were unaware of the conviction because Stewart failed to disclose it to them. That’s certainly plausible, but Stewart’s nondisclosure does not absolve them from the fact that they should have found it on their own.

Presumably this dispute with the IRS has been meandering through the criminal justice process for a while – at least since 2008. Had the Governor’s Appointments Office conducted a Google search of Stewart’s name before he was named to the Redistricting Committee, it might have saved the O’Malley Administration some avoidable embarrassment.

The second player to have missed it was Maryland's Republican Party, led by Chairman Alex Mooney. Mooney is now campaigning and fundraising actively for a Sixth Congressional District bid, and has signaled his intention to relinquish his party duties possibly in January.

Given his paucity of accomplishments, he clearly won’t be missed.  

Case in point: I attended the excellent holiday fundraising event for the MD GOP, ably organized and hosted by my friend Nicolee Ambrose. A few days after I purchased my tickets online, I received a thank you letter from Chairman Mooney.

Wow, I figured, the party is finally get the small things right.

Well, notsomuch, it turns out.

The thank you letter was for the party’s annual "Red, White, and Blue" event, which I attended last summer and which raised a meager $9,000 for the party. That may seem like a small thing, but it makes me wonder whether a party that cannot successfully tackle the small things can possibly ever get the big ones right.  

In all fairness, the MD GOP just hired a new Executive Director, David Ferguson, who seems well credentialed and qualified for his duties. According to the article I linked above, he maintains he too was on top of the Stewart situation despite only being on the job for less than a month. But an engaged and on-top-of-it party chairman would have directed his staff to do months ago what Kolbe just did on his own initiative.

Anyway, the purpose of this blog entry is not to bash, but to point out the obvious: If Mooney does depart in January, the GOP will once again be looking for a new chairman.

Though relatively new to the scene, Steve Kolbe may have the energy and the fresh approach to politics that the Maryland GOP needs.

Most importantly, he has shown a willingness to prioritize the traditional watchdog function which the minority party should always play.

Sometimes it takes hours of research to point out the other guy’s mistakes. Sometimes, it only takes one engaged citizen willing to perform a Google search.

Any credible list of successors to Mooney should have Kolbe’s name on it. 

4 comments:

  1. If the new ED was "on top of it" as he said, in the begining of December, why didn't he tell someone, anyone, about it. I have my doughts as did the Democrats when they called him out on it in the paper.

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  2. Kudos to Steve Kolbe for the great find on this criminal.

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  3. Agree with the first anonymous,re: What did Ferguson know and when did he know it. Also, I'm now hearing Mr. Mooney is likely to not run for Congress...which, if he doesn't, means he's remaining as Chairman until his tenure is up.

    Joe Steffen

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  4. Maryland's tough enough as is, I don't think the internal partisan sniping makes it any better.

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