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January 19, 2007

"Lennie Being Lennie"

Roy Meachum

In a position usually reserved for major catastrophes, matters like wars and the deaths of ex-presidents, all the way across Wednesday's Frederick News-Post front-page the headline ran: "Thompson asks for ethics review of himself."

You have to read all the way to the story's end to discover Del. Rick Weldon's summing up: "That's Lennie being Lennie and attempting to use the media to make a point. This happens fairly frequently. Everyone knows there's no ethical issue."

It almost goes without saying Clifford Cumber used his influence with News-Post editors to get the non-story onto the front page, and in that fantastic power-position. Mr. Cumber had been that way before. So had Mr. Thompson.

After then-Commissioners' President Thompson had blabbed and bragged to The Gazette's Sherry Greenfield about his use of county property for personal gains, Mr. Cumber intervened. Whereas Ms. Greenfield quoted Mr. Thompson about how his low official pay justified using public property for his private law practice; Mr. Cumber reported the other way.

The News-Post stories made it appear that the commissioner's office and cell phone came into play only when he felt there was little choice. That's how Mr. Thompson presented the situation to the ethics commission, buttressed by Mr. Cumber's writing, when he sought to preempt criticism by calling the panel into what was already a public mess, thanks primarily to solid reporting by The Gazette.

Ignoring his confession and his bragging to Ms. Greenfield, the ethics commission went along with Mr. Thompson's version of the truth, as filtered through Mr. Cumber's computer. In the end, the panel suggested - without demanding - the county board president might want to consider leasing a cell phone of his own.

This was during the same time when Mr. Cumber convinced his editors that Mr. Thompson's chief political rival, Mike Cady, had mounted a weightlifting contest to solidify his support among developers. In fact, as related in my News-Post column during those weeks, the competition was a fully sponsored Olympics event, a fact acknowledged by his fellow commissioners. Then-Board President Thompson's signed the letter welcoming the international contestants which appeared in the program printed for the occasion.

Nevertheless, the ethics commission found fault with Mr. Cady, accusing him of a violation because he had put himself forward as ultimately responsible for any bills that might remain after the outsiders left town. Of course, there were none. The U.S. Olympics Committee pays its obligations.

Another factor that made Wednesday's front-page blazing headline more ridiculous, as Delegate Weldon said, Mr. Thompson's recent ethics request brought only good publicity for Mr. Thompson. And that's all. The matter had to do with the commissioner's proposal that the county solid waste pickup be put out for bid to trash-hauling companies.

Mr. Weldon figured, at the tail of the News-Post interview, the proposal dead coming out of the gate. The same idea had failed in Annapolis before, Commissioner Thompson told WFMD morning personality, Bob Miller. A handful of county residents had recently written Winchester Hall, protesting what they regarded as a drive by larger outfits to squeeze out their smaller competitors. Of course, Lennie Thompson denied he had been approached by any business interest, big or little.

In his surprise appearance on Mr. Miller's Morning News Express, the former commissioners' president rued being moved out of the spotlight; he went from top vote-getter in 2002 to the low man on the elected totem pole last year.

Lennie Thompson, nevertheless, manages to play his Winchester Hall 900-pound gorilla role, and will, so long as the self-ordained "Frederick News-Post Political Correspondent" continues to bully editors who know little or nothing about this community. That was the chief lesson learned from Wednesday's blown-up story and screaming headline.

(In addition to being chair of the county's legislative delegation, Mr. Weldon is a colleague; his column appears Mondays.)


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