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Request for probe stirs up PenMar board meeting

Wivell seeks investigation of former fortâEUR(TM)s sale to COPT

Wivell seeks investigation of former fortâEUR(TM)s sale to COPT

May 10, 2005|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

CASCADE - Since the PenMar Development Corp. agreed to sell the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base last July, board members have bickered, flung accusations, and filed complaints over the price of the property and the handling of the sale.

The debate continued at a PenMar board meeting Monday morning, during a heated discussion about board treasurer William J. Wivell's request to two U.S. senators for an investigation of possible wrongdoing regarding the sale contract.

Wivell also is vice president of the Washington County Commissioners.

PenMar was created by the state in 1997 to redevelop the base, which the Army shut down in 1998.

PenMar board member Jack Simpson, who said he had problems with actions concerning the sale contract, also had concerns about Wivell's letter to U.S. Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes.

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He asked why Wivell sent the letter to the senators before notifying the entire board.

He also didn't like the fact that Wivell left out names of PenMar officials in the letter, because it "casts a shadow on all of us as far as guilt. I don't appreciate that," Simpson said.

In an April 8 letter to Sarbanes and Mikulski, Wivell asked the senators to investigate the sale of the base to Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT) of Columbia, Md., for possible wrongdoing or unethical or criminal acts.

In his letter, Wivell wrote 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 said parts of the contract that dealt with the opinion were deleted. The deletion came after another board member who objected to the fairness opinion said he would file an ethics complaint regarding the validity of a fairness opinion, Wivell wrote.

The purpose of the fairness opinion was to determine whether the proposed sale price is fair and reasonable.

PenMar agreed to sell the 638-acre property to COPT for $9 million. That price will drop to $5 million if COPT creates a certain number of jobs over several years.

Simpson said he thought the finding of the fairness opinion - that the sale price was fair and reasonable - was valid, but asked that the board send it to an independent professional appraiser for a determination.

Later in the meeting, the board voted 6-5 not to pursue Simpson's proposal.

Several days after Wivell wrote the letter, Mikulski and Sarbanes forwarded it to the Maryland Attorney General's Office for review.

Also at the meeting, Wivell and board member Ron Sulchek pressed PenMar Executive Director Rich Rook, board attorney Timothy Chriss and other board members for specifics on the changes made to the sale contract.

Sulchek also asked several questions about the validity of the fairness opinion and the actions of PenMar officials regarding the opinion, prompting interruptions from board member Peggy Bushey and board Chairman George Griffin.

Sulchek filed an ethics complaint in October against Lippman Frizzell & Mitchell LLC of Columbia. Lippman Frizzell & Mitchell is the firm that decided the sale price of the base was "fair and reasonable" without appraising the property.

He has said he thinks an appraisal of the base should have been done before PenMar agreed to sell it.

"We heard it many, many times, Ron," Bushey said.

Griffin said he was tired of the bickering and that he hoped all board members would remember the mission of PenMar, which is to redevelop the base.

"We have been through this discussion many, many times," Griffin said. "I've had enough of it. Ron, I don't care what you say. You're not getting anywhere with it."

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