A Harford County Circuit Court judge heard arguments Tuesday from the attorneys for Aberdeen Mayor Mike Bennett and the city's ethics commission over a disputed unfavorable ruling the panel issued against the mayor in 2011.
Bennett has accused the commission of unfairly tarnishing his reputation by "admonishing" him for the trip he took to Augusta, Ga., at the behest of Ripken Baseball in 2011. The company owns the Aberdeen IronBirds minor league team and is the sole tenant of the city-owned Ripken Stadium.
Judge Stephen Waldron noted as a disclaimer that he is an IronBirds season ticket holder, but he has no connection to the Ripkens. The judge also said he once represented the City of Aberdeen in a case more than 30 years ago.
"I see this really as a singular issue, the one finding by the commission," Waldron said.
Elissa Levan, Bennett's lawyer, told the judge he should dismiss the commission's finding that the mayor used the privilege of office to benefit a third party.
She said everyone agrees there was no gain to the mayor, his family or friends and no one could find "a single shred of evidence" that any private party benefited from the October 2011 trip, paid for by Ripken Baseball.
Bennett had not reported the trip to city officials or the commission beforehand and has since said he did not believe such reporting was necessary under the law.
At the time of the trip, Ripken Baseball was trying to persuade Augusta city officials to build a new stadium for the GreenJackets, a team then owned by Ripken Baseball. Ripken Baseball has since sold the GreenJackets, but continues to own the IronBirds and the Charlotte Stone Crabs in Port Charlotte, Fla.,
Bennett has previously acknowledged he spoke positively about the city's relationship with Ripken Baseball and the stadium during the few hours he spent in Augusta.
Levan told Waldron the ethics commission violated its own procedure, was forced to retract some of the charges and then struggled to find "something, anything" to pin on Bennett.
She also said Patrick McGrady, who unsuccessfully ran against Bennett in the 2011 mayoral race and filed the original complaint against the trip, had motives that were "entirely politically motivated."
McGrady was not at the hearing Tuesday. Three of the ethics commission members were in attendance. Their lawyer, Kevin Karpinski, said member Jesse Shanks had a death in the family and could not attend.
Levan said McGrady's accusation was used only to "disparage and besmirch" the mayor.
"To a man who has dedicated his life to public service, this is more than a slap on the wrist," Levan said of the commission's admonishment.
Waldron appeared to agree, saying he "totally" gets "the emotional impact of dragging this around behind you the rest of your life."
Levan said it comes down to a difference of opinion about the commission's scope of authority and the issue of motivations.
"We would maintain that it was the mayor's intention to benefit the city because Ripken Baseball is the city's primary economic driver," she said.
The lawyer said the trip itself was "extremely burdensome" for the mayor and the uproar after he returned made him feel like "no good deed goes unpunished."
Waldron added that Bennett bought his own lunch, so it was not as though he got a guided tour around Augusta.
Levan noted that after the commission was asked to rescind its negative opinion, the members refused.
"I think it's telling. The reason they didn't do that is they needed to save face," she said.
Karpinski, meanwhile, told the judge the commission members were not unduly partial toward the mayor and their statement amounted to, "In the future, be more careful."
He said there was "substantial evidence that reasonable minds could reach" to support the findings of the commission.
He also said the complainant's political motivations have nothing to do with the hearing and disagreed with Levan's assertion that there was a delay in scheduling a hearing for Bennett. Karpinski said Bennett was notified shortly after the report of the commission's hearing.
The commission has "certainly no obligation" to rescind a decision, he added.
"At the end of the day, after a hearing, the commission did revisit and withdraw two of the three issues," he said.
He also said when one looks at the record and takes out "all the passion and hyperbole," there is "no question" the commission acted reasonably and not capriciously.
Karpinski said newspaper articles quoting Bennett made it clear Bennett wholeheartedly supported Ripken Baseball and there was a core relationship between the mayor and the business.
"This had nothing to do with Aberdeen. This had everything to do with the Ripken Baseball organization leveraging a better deal with the City of Aberdeen," he said.
Whether or not the result was successful, Karpinski said the intent was obviously to benefit Ripken Baseball.
Levan replied that the mayor can absolutely support whoever he wants and if voters don't like it, they can vote him out of office.
"Why would this man go all the way to Augusta if he didn't believe it had something to do with the city?" she said. "He clearly believed it would benefit the city."
Waldron, who had made a handful of half-joking baseball references along the way, noted: "You are addressing a judge wearing an Orioles shirt and Orioles tie."
He told both parties they should not expect his ruling for at least a couple of weeks.