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Former city councilman thinks Hagerstown mishandled anonymous donor

Forrest W. Easton said he found it 'alarming' that previous administration never determined if money was actually available

December 13, 2012|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com

A former Hagerstown City Councilman and one re-elected in November have differing viewpoints about how the city handled information about an anonymous eight-figure donation that would have helped make a downtown stadium project possible.

Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said Dec. 4 that it’s looking less and less likely that the verbal commitment for $15 million would become reality.

The financial feasibility of the downtown stadium proposal was contingent upon receiving the private donation, city officials have said.

But the way the donor situation was handled by city staff was criticized Wednesday by former Councilman Forrest W. Easton, who left his post in late November as his term had expired. He dropped his re-election bid after the April primary.

Easton said he felt it was “alarming” toward the end of the previous administration’s discussions with the donor that it was still unknown if he, in fact, had the money.

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“I wouldn’t trust somebody if they said they were giving me $1,000,” he said.

Easton said he didn’t think the city did its “due diligence to explore the donor’s legitimacy,” and said he considered the way the city handled the situation a “mismanagement of time.”

To expect a $15 million donation “from anyone is a stretch,” he said. He was critical of the move by city staff to include the money in a preliminary funding model as if the city was sure it was available.

Metzner, however, said the city did everything it could to properly “vet the individual,” checking “every legal, appropriate, public record” available and holding private discussions with people that knew the man.

“We could find nothing but positive things about him, and to this day, I would say from everything I’ve known about him I would refuse to say anything but very positive things about this gentleman,” he said, adding that all signs indicated the donor is a “good, honorable, honest, well-reputationed individual.”

“The one thing that unfortunately was impossible to do, under the circumstances of the situation, was get proof that the money exists,” Metzner said. “It’s allegedly tied up in a very complicated, confidential trust agreement in a trust involving a number of people. That’s the difficulty.”

Metzner, the lone council member to have direct contact with the man, has said the donor approached him and discussions began in April or May. A verbal commitment was made public in September, but the man’s name has still not been made public.

Metzner said the man was reluctant to speak with other city officials, but the councilman insisted the donor meet with staff members, including city attorneys. He said it would have been a disservice to the city, the donor and the citizens had he been the sole contact with the man.

“We had city attorneys meet with him with me, had another attorney meet, but I felt it was very important for staff to start being the people who had contact,” Metzner said. “They’re continuing contact with him at my request.”

In his Dec. 4 comments, Metzner said a letter was sent to the man stating that he would have to transfer the money into a local bank account before moving the money into the city’s possession by way of an escrow account by the end of November, which came and went without a funds transfer.

Easton said that was the last official contact on behalf of the five-member council with the donor that he was aware of.

If the money does exists, it’s uncertain — although still possible — that it might still be in play for a stadium at another location outside of the downtown, Metzner said.

Metzner said his skepticism that the man could produce the donation has grown in recent months.

“I’ve expressed to many people that I’m afraid this gentleman thinks he has the money and may have been investing with a Bernie Madoff-type person,” he said. “I hope I’m wrong. If I’m wrong, we’re going to see $15 million.”

Madoff is serving a 150-year prison sentence after admitting to operating a Ponzi scheme considered to be the largest financial fraud in U.S. history.

A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation that pays returns to its investors from their own money or subsequent investors, not from the actual profit earned by an individual or organization that runs the operation.

Despite a new proposal to build a stadium to house the Suns in the city’s East End rather than downtown, Metzner said he and city staff intend to stay in contact with the possible donor and the donor has related that his position is still that the money will be available.

“But nobody can count on that,” Metzner said. “And certainly we’re not.”

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