John Vontran, a Baltimore-area real estate developer and businessman previously investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice — which faulted him for “gross mismanagement” of affiliated companies — is now coordinating economic development strategies for Baltimore County.
On May 1, the administration of Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. hired Vontran, who most recently managed an apprenticeship program in the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation, as the new “sector strategy coordinator” in the Department of Economic and Workforce Development, the county executive’s office confirmed Thursday.
Vontran, 59, is a longtime Baltimore County Democratic campaign fundraiser who’s given Olszewski a total of $12,000 as an individual donor between 2018 and 2022, according to campaign finance filings.
He’s also drawn attention in years past from federal law enforcement, and the ire of business investors and Dundalk residents.
County communications director Sean Naron said Vontran will serve as “the primary point of contact” for businesses and corporate executives, facilitating access “to county and state programs and resources.”
Vontran is a real estate developer who pushed forward two large-scale redevelopment projects through the County Council in Dundalk when Olszewski’s father, former councilman John Olszewski Sr., represented the area from 1998 to 2014.
In 2009, Vontran bought the former blighted York Park apartment complex in Dundalk from Baltimore County for $1.6 million, redeveloping it into single-family homes, after the county had spent $21 million to acquire and demolish it. In 2014, Vontran received Baltimore County Council approval for a similar redevelopment project nearby at the old Seagram’s distillery, which Olszewski Sr. requested council approval to build as a planned unit development even while dozens of fires had ravaged the abandoned warehouses since Vontran acquired it in 2008.
Dundalk residents were critical of then-County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’s administration for failing for years to intervene at the vacant distillery, despite critical injuries from fires and the deaths of two men who fell from walkways there in 2012 and 2014. In 2017, the county finally ordered Vontran and affiliated property owner Sollers Investors LLC to demolish the defunct distillery and pay $100,000 for code violations.
Neither Vontran nor Councilman Todd Crandell, who represents the Dundalk area, responded to The Banner’s requests for comment Thursday and Friday.
Vontran acquired the old Seagram’s plant while under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2007, federal agents seized illegally obtained gambling proceeds at the Dundalk offices of Vontran’s Amusement Vending Inc. The vending company sold electronic gambling machines — and pocketed more than $51,300 in illegally obtained gambling proceeds connected to company “casino night” fundraisers meant to benefit nonprofits, according to Baltimore City Paper.
Vontran and his wife, Kelly, forfeited the illicit money as part of a 2009 federal agreement. During the investigation, a federal trustee also faulted the couple for “gross mismanagement,” “inaccurate and incomplete information,” and conflicting statements they provided creditors — and compelled the Vontrans to agree to Chapter 7 liquidation of assets.
The Justice Department agreed to release the Vontrans from liquidation requirements in October 2016. Creditors received less than $104,000 of what they were owed, and claims totaling more than $7.72 million went unpaid, court filings show.
Amid his investigation by federal law enforcement, Vontran also faced an adversary case from Frank Scarfield, a Baltimore real estate developer and investor, who in 2010 alleged Vontran fraudulently, and under false pretenses, put up financing to purchase a property at the intersection of Yorkway and Leeway in Dundalk. Vontran bought the property with plans to build around 66 new homes near the old Seagram’s distillery.
The case was dismissed in June 2011 after Scarfield failed to comply with court orders, according to court filings. Vontran continued his real estate development ventures.
“I can only judge him [Vontran] based on what I know of him,” said Republican Councilman David Marks, who posted a photo taken with Vontran — donning a collared-shirt with the Baltimore County seal — to Facebook on Tuesday.
Vontran has “been helpful in other roles to me,” Marks said, noting the support Vontran lobbied among private businesses for legislation brought by Olszewski in 2020 requiring prevailing wage enforcement and the hiring of local contractors for county-funded projects.
“He has a lot of connections to the private sector,” Marks said. Asked about the Justice Department investigation, Marks said the matter “predates my service on the council,” which began in 2010.
Naron said Olszewski was unavailable for comment Thursday. Speaking with a reporter about Vontran’s hiring relative to his prior business dealings, Naron emphasized Vontran’s more recent public service as a program manager in the state labor department, where he worked for at least six years, between November 2015 and May 2021, according to public meeting notes.
Asked about the county’s safeguards against any potential conflicts of interest, Naron pointed to the ethics commission and the inspector general’s office, which receive and investigate such complaints. The county’s ethics commission is overseen by the county Office of Law.
As a Baltimore County economic strategist, Vontran’s salary is $93,845, according to Naron. The position is funded with federal American Rescue Plan coronavirus aid, and was advertised by the economic development department before Vontran was hired. Naron said Vontran will also be responsible for coordinating the county’s share of the federal funds disbursed in 2021.
Vontran will report to Pete O’Neil, the county’s senior manager for economic development, Naron said. Part of his job description involves advising the newly-appointed department director Marcus L. Wang, who served with Vontran on the county’s economic development advisory board.
This article has been updated to clarify that John Vontran was hired by the administration and not personally by Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.
This article has been updated to correct the name of the Dundalk property John Vontran purchased from Baltimore County.