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Commissioner requests probe into proposed Fort Ritchie sale

April 16, 2005|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

CASCADE - A Washington County Commissioner has asked two U.S. senators to investigate the proposed sale of the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base for possible wrongdoing or unethical or criminal acts.

Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell wrote the letter to U.S. Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes on April 8. In the letter, Wivell states that it appears "certain individuals altered critical provisions of the (sale) contract documents" after they were given to the PenMar Development Corp. board of directors for approval, but before they were submitted to the developer buying the property for signature.

Wivell also is treasurer of the PenMar board. PenMar was created by the state in 1997 to redevelop the former base in Cascade. The Army closed the base in 1998.

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"My purpose for writing to you today is to ask you to initiate an investigation to determine whether anyone committed any wrongdoing, unethical or criminal acts surrounding this situation," Wivell wrote.

PenMar board Chairman George Griffin said Friday that he "categorically" rejected any allegation made by Wivell.

"I don't think the letter was called for," Griffin said. "I don't think this is the business of the U.S. Senate. Alleging some kind of wrongdoing or criminal acts, I think, is going too far. Nobody has done anything like that to my knowledge."

Wivell and representatives from Sarbanes' and Mikulski's offices did not return phone calls Friday.

The parts of the signed contract that Wivell said were altered dealt with a fairness opinion the PenMar board agreed to have completed on the sale. The purpose of the fairness opinion was to determine whether the proposed sale price is fair and reasonable.

In July, PenMar agreed to sell the base to Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT) of Columbia, Md., for $9 million. That price will drop to $5 million if COPT creates a certain number of jobs over a number of years.

"Language in the signed document has been deleted and altered from the language in the document approved by the PMDC board," Wivell wrote.

Wivell wrote in the letter to the senators that language in the signed contract requiring a fairness opinion and a special closing contingency paragraph that required the opinion to be from an appraiser or other qualified real estate professional was deleted. The deletion came after another board member who objected to the fairness opinion said he would file an ethics complaint regarding the matter, Wivell wrote.

Griffin said the language was deleted from the contract because the special contingency had been satisfied. The contract that the PenMar board reviewed stated that language was to be removed after the contingency was satisfied, Griffin said.

"It's an automatic deletion, so I don't know what he's complaining about," Griffin said.

Wivell and PenMar board member Ron Sulchek have publicly objected to the fairness opinion, saying an appraisal of the 638-acre base should have been completed.

Wivell wrote that the changes to the signed contract were significant and that they "materially alter a document ..."

"Second, the changes were made without board approval, and furthermore, they were made after a board member had indicated that he would be filing an ethics complaint in regards to the completion of the fairness opinion, which he believed was required to be based upon an appraisal of the underlying property," Wivell wrote.

Sulchek filed an ethics complaint in October against Lippman Frizzell & Mitchell LLC of Columbia, Md. - the firm that decided the sale price of the base was "fair and reasonable" without first having the property appraised. He filed the complaint with the Chicago-based Appraisal Institute, an international membership association of professional real estate appraisers that enforces among its members a Code of Professional Ethics and the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice.

"Since no such appraisal was done, it appears that certain individuals who were determined to sell the Fort at the price set with COPT, simply deleted the contract language which appeared to require an appraisal," Wivell wrote.

Griffin said that wasn't the case.

"I don't think Mr. Wivell quite grasps what was going on," Griffin said. "I don't want to get into an argument with another board member, however, I have written a letter to those same senators commenting on his letter."

Griffin said he wanted the PenMar board to discuss Wivell's letter at the next board meeting on May 9. He said some of the discussion would be in closed session, while some probably would be held in open session.

"We just have a couple of people who just don't seem to want to let this rest, and I don't know why," Griffin said.

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