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Mobtown Beat

Buzz Berg is a Political Player with a Shadowy Past

By Van Smith | Posted 2/19/2009

Gerald W. "Buzz" Berg, whose recycling yard in Southwest Baltimore was raided yesterday by the Defense Department, stands out among politically connected business leaders in Maryland for at least two reasons.

First, he's a character whose antics over the decades—including raising bison on his Green Spring Valley property, where he also fought local officials for the right to land his helicopter—have at times entertained the public while rankling his posh neighbors.

Second, he's a federally convicted racketeer. In the late 1970s in Baltimore, Berg and several other businessmen in the demolition business were convicted, along with Ottavio Grande of Baltimore's Department of Public Works, in a bid-rigging scheme involving city contracts. Berg went to prison for his part in the crimes.

Despite Berg's criminal record, his outsized personality and his substantial business interests as Maryland's "wrecking czar," as he's been dubbed in the press, have kept him in the political game.

Since 1999, Berg and his companies have donated at least $19,000 to Maryland political campaigns. The most—$5,500 given between 1999 and 2003—went to Democrat Martin O'Malley when he was mayor of Baltimore. As now-Gov. O'Malley's ambitions to lead the state became clear, though, Berg preferred Republican Robert Ehrlich, O'Malley's predecessor in the State House, who received $3,600 of Berg's money between 2002 and 2006.

The next biggest beneficiary of Berg's largesse—$3,000 in 2006—is Democrat Steve Silverman. The former Montgomery County councilman lost his bid for county executive in 2006 after his opponent, Ike Leggett, pegged Silverman as a shill for developers. Today, Silverman is the chief of the Maryland Attorney General's Office consumer-protection division.

Most recently, in April 2008, Berg gave $1,000 to Baltimore City councilman Ed Reisinger, a Democrat who chairs the council's land use committee.

At the federal level, Berg has consistently helped bankroll Ben Cardin's campaigns. The former congressman, now a senator, received $4,100 from Berg between 2003 and 2006. In 2007, Berg backed Rudy Giuliani for president with a $1,000 donation, then switched to John McCain, whose campaign received $2,000 from Berg. In October, Berg donated $1,000 to the Alaska Republican Party.

Politics isn't just about campaign donations, though. City Paper recapped Berg's past in 1998, when he emerged as one of a bevy of business leaders supporting a controversial hotel proposal for Inner Harbor East. He remains a high-profile part of the development community, doing demolition for major projects all over the region and in Washington, D.C. Many of those projects involve public contracts—transactions that, back in the 1970s, landed him in jail for monkeying around with the rules.

The Defense Criminal Investigative Service, the law enforcers for the Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General, yesterday were observed seizing computers and paperwork out of Berg's Southwest Baltimore recycling yard. It remains to be seen what his businesses are suspected of doing, as the search warrants establishing the cause for the raid remain under seal. But the fact that the raid happened is sure to lead to speculation as to whether or not he's still up to the same old games. Berg, who is in the best position to quash such talk, has not responded to City Paper's attempts to speak with him about this latest wrinkle in his long and storied career.

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