Aberdeen ethics panel looking at possible settlement on Bennett case

The Aberdeen Ethics Commission is discussing a possible legal settlement with Mayor Mike Bennett over his appeal of the remaining ethics violation the board charged him with in 2011.

The violation stems from a 2011 trip Bennett took to Georgia to aid Ripken Baseball in pleading its case for a new stadium for one of the Aberdeen company's minor league baseball teams.

The possible settlement was discussed during a closed session at the ethics commission's last meeting on Dec. 6. Chairperson Maria Fothergill and the other members of the commission declined to comment on what was discussed, but the motion to close the meeting to confer with legal counsel dealt with the Bennett case.

In August, Bennett filed an appeal in Harford County Circuit Court of an earlier ruling by the ethics commission stating that he violated a provision in Aberdeen's ethics code using "the prestige of the office for private gain or the private gain of another" by visiting Augusta, Ga., to advocate for Ripken Baseball, which owns the Augusta GreenJackets, as well as the Aberdeen IronBirds who play in the city-owned Ripken Stadium.

The previous fall, the commission, ruling on a complaint by Patrick McGrady, who was running against Bennett for mayor, found Bennett had committed three Ethics Code violations in connection with the Georgia trip. Bennett won a third term within days of the commission's ruling, but by just five votes over McGrady.

Bennett, who at the time said he believed he had not committed any violations of what he said is an antiquated code that the city, like other municipalities around the state, has been in the process of updating, next requested a hearing before the commission to give his side in person.

After considerable discussion, according to documents in the case, the commission agreed to the request and a closed hearing was held at city hall on May 22. On Aug. 9, the commission issued an opinion in which it reversed itself on two of the violations, but let stand the one that Bennett is appealing in court.

Bennett is represented in the court appeal by Greenbelt attorney Elissa Levan, whom he is paying himself.

"The reality is that there shouldn't have been any [ethics] charges," Bennett told The Record in October concerning his appeal. "If I allowed them to stand, that could severely affect any other mayor and other mayors around the state."

"It's the mayor's job to be a cheerleader for businesses in the city," Bennett added. "[The ethics ruling] effectively says I couldn't even do a ribbon cutting because that's using the prestige of the office."

Frederick Sussman, who is Aberdeen's city attorney, is representing the ethics commission in the Bennett appeal.

Sussman said any conflict of interest between his work for the commission and his work with Bennett as a city official would be avoided if further legal proceedings become necessary.

"If the matter proceeds in court, the city [commission] will engage other counsel to represent [itself]," Sussman said.

Sussman was abruptly hired by the city in October to replace Elwood V. Stark Jr., who as the previous city attorney had represented the ethics commission during the May hearing and in the drafting of the August ruling that left the one violation finding standing.

During its Dec. 6 meeting, the commission also discussed new financial disclosure forms for city employees to comply with new state regulations. Elected and appointed city employees and officials will have a different form to complete from other city employees. The commission plans to rule on approval of the new forms Dec. 20.

If approved, the new forms would have to be turned in to City Clerk Monica Correll by Jan. 31.

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