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Court hearing set for Aberdeen mayor's appeal of adverse ethics commission ruling

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The City of Aberdeen's Ethics Commission and city Mayor Mike Bennett are getting ready for a May 17 court hearing over the commission's November 2011 "admonishment" of Bennett's trip to Augusta, Ga., taken at the behest of Ripken Baseball.

City lawyer Frederick Sussman told the four commission members Tuesday that Harford County Circuit Court would hear arguments at 1 p.m. that day on Bennett's appeal of the commission's adverse ruling against him.

The commission was expecting to meet with its own lawyer, Baltimore-based Kevin Karpinski, on Thursday. Bennett's lawyer is Elissa Levan from Greenbelt. The mayor is paying Levan himself.

Sussman explained to the commission during Tuesday's meeting the court has the option to ask questions, but most likely will not rule on the case that day.

The case was spurred by an Oct. 3, 2011, trip taken by Bennett to Georgia at Ripken Baseball's expense. Bennett did not report the trip to city officials or the commission beforehand and has since said he did not believe that was necessary under the law.

At the time of the trip, Ripken Baseball, which owns the Aberdeen IronBirds and Augusta GreenJackets minor league baseball teams, was trying to persuade Augusta city officials to build a new stadium. Ripken Baseball also owns the Charlotte Stone Crabs in Port Charlotte, Fla.

Bennett said he spoke positively about the city's relationship with Ripken Baseball and the stadium, which has been a financial drain on the city since it opened 11 years ago. The city owns the stadium and leases it to Ripken Baseball, which runs the facility on a year-round basis.

Election controversy

The Georgia trip became a controversy during the city's mayoral race in 2011, when Bennett's challenger Patrick McGrady, complained to the ethics commission about Bennett's trip, among other topics.

The ethics commission released a report "admonishing" Bennett just six days before the election, concluding he committed three violations of the city's Ethics Code. McGrady lost that race but by only five votes, a result that was much closer than most people following the race had expected.

The commission initially found Bennett "did not willfully violate" the city's code of ethics, but did fail to disclose a potential conflict in writing prior to the trip and did not "address the problem of the desired effect of economic gain for Ripken Baseball, a business entity with which the City of Aberdeen is closely affiliated."

Bennett demanded that the commission rescind the opinion, which it refused; however, the panel did agree to hold a hearing and one was held on May 22, 2012, closed to the public at the request of the mayor. On Aug. 9, 2012, the commission issued a revised opinion in which it reversed two of its earlier findings against the may and let stand a ruling the mayor violated the code by using "the prestige of office for private gain or the gain of another," by making the trip to advocate on behalf of Ripken Baseball.

Bennett next filed a civil appeal of the revised ruling on Aug. 27, 2012. Although members of the commission acknowledged late last year that there had been settlement discussions with the mayor after he filed the court action, nothing has come of them.

Refuting findings

Bennett's lawyer filed a petition in Harford Circuit Court on March 8, claiming the commission violated city code by not conducting a hearing before its ruling, lacked any factual basis for its conclusions and, "most egregiously," did not follow the code-prescribed procedure for handling a complaint.

According to the petition, the commission did not schedule a hearing until May 22, 2012, in which the mayor testified about his "long association with the City, the nature of his reputation, and the trauma that the insinuations of Mr. McGrady had caused him."

The petition also noted that then-city attorney, Elwood Stark Jr., had a conflict of interest because his engagement by the mayor and city council required him to represent the interests of the city and its elected officials, not the ethics commission. Bennett later fired Stark from the city attorney's post and hired Sussman, who has worked for the city for about six months. From the outset of his hiring by the city, Sussman said the commission would need to hire its own legal counsel.

The petition also emphasized that Bennett received no compensation for the trip. Earlier, he had told the commission no members of his family are involved with Ripken Baseball and that, aside from being a tenant at the stadium, the company had no other business relationships with the city government.

"The trip was in fact more of a burden than anything else. It is hard to see why the Mayor or any rational person would have undertaken it at all, except for his perception that the trip had a direct benefit to his constituents and the City of Aberdeen. In fact, that is something for which the people of the City of Aberdeen ought to stand up and applaud him," the petition states.

At the time the commission admonishment was released, Bennett said he was very upset by the decision, explaining the commission "mixed and matched" parts of the code of ethics.

The members of the ethics commission are appointed by the mayor; however, some of those who wrote the opinion Bennett is trying to overturn were holdovers from previous city administrations. The members are Maria Fothergill, Myra Fender, Marian de Rosset and Jesse Shanks.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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