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Gouge under scrutiny in stream bank case

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The state's attorney is "watching" County Commissioner Julia W. Gouge's handling of federal wetlands and county sediment-control violations on the 8-acre property she and her husband own near Hampstead.

"We have been apprised of the situation . . . in discussions with various agencies," State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman said. "We're simply watching it at this point.

"If a criminal violation is charged, this office is a prosecuting agency. We have arranged for such a case to be totally handled by a special prosecutor from another county."

On Feb. 17, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cited Mrs. Gouge and her husband, Jesse L. Gouge, for what inspector Sandy Mues called a minor infraction. The case grew out of what Mr. Gouge described as his son's attempt to improve the flow of a clogged stream on their property by digging out some dirt, which he piled on the stream bank.

Ms. Mues said the corps does not intend to seek any penalty or fine against the couple.

Mr. Hickman declined to call his investigation extensive. He said a special prosecutor would be appointed to handle any possible case because the commissioners approve the state's attorney's budget.

He scoffed at the notion that an investigation of Mrs. Gouge -- a fellow Republican -- is in any way politically motivated.

"We've run on the same ticket; we're in the same party," he said. "There's no antagonism here."

County inspectors' records indicate that Mrs. Gouge delivered a tongue-lashing to county government employees who have tried since December to get her and Mr. Gouge to correct sediment-control violations associated with the dirt pile.

She also got help from Commissioner Donald I. Dell, who blocked the county staff's efforts to notify the Corps of Engineers of the violation of wetlands regulations.

The corps checked the property and cited Mr. and Mrs. Gouge only after one of their neighbors reported that the Gouges were digging in a stream from which the neighbors' animals drink, adding oil slicks and sludge to the water.

Ms. Mues said the infraction involved digging in the stream without authorization and piling fill dirt on the bank. She said she expects environmental damage to be temporary.

County employees say Mrs. Gouge never pressured staff members not to enforce the regulations. But sediment control office records indicate, and Commissioner Elmer C. Lippy confirmed, that Mrs. Gouge made it clear she expected to be treated differently from other citizens.

She criticized the staff for leaving with her secretary a message about the infraction that Mrs. Gouge felt was too specific and for mailing rather than hand-delivering a letter outlining corrective measures.

The records contain a report from Gale J. Smith, sediment control bureau chief, that Mrs. Gouge "felt that I was very inconsiderate of her, being the one who signs my paycheck, that I was going against my supervisors by writing such an uncaring letter."

Mrs. Gouge denied last week that she used her position to obtain special treatment.

But she said the message to her secretary, which advised Mrs. Gouge to go to the sediment control office and obtain a grading permit, was confusing.

"It would've seemed [the inspector] could have walked upstairs and said, 'We've had a call from a neighbor and you've got a problem,' " Mrs. Gouge said.

The Lippy inquiry

Commissioner Lippy said he initially was sympathetic when Mrs. Gouge complained privately that the county staff was harassing her. But he said an investigation persuaded him that Mrs. Gouge was in fact attempting to intimidate the employees.

"I heard enough to promise them that, as long as I was commissioner, there would be no repercussions," Mr. Lippy said.

Commissioner Dell got involved Jan. 28, after the staff had checked the excavation work, sent a letter outlining corrective actions Mr. and Mrs. Gouge should take, checked again, found no corrective action taken and met several times with Mrs. Gouge.

Mr. Dell directed Ms. Smith not to notify the Corps of Engineers.

"I don't feel like I've interfered with our staff doing their job," Mr. Dell said. "I haven't said to our staff, 'Don't enforce any law.' I have said, 'As far as the federal government, let me talk to Julia.' "

Mr. Dell said he didn't see any need to involve a federal agency. "There was a threat to call the federal agencies. We have our own laws here. Why couldn't we handle it here?" he said.

Ms. Mues said that when an inspector sees a possible violation in another agency's jurisdiction, it is standard procedure to share that information.

'Like a speeding ticket'

Ms. Mues said the Gouge violation is "sort of like a speeding ticket" in terms of seriousness. She issued a formal stop-work order last week, and said she plans to direct Mr. and Mrs. Gouge to remove fill dirt from the stream bank where it is piled and stabilize the banks when the ground is no longer frozen.

Lorraine Ewy, one of Mrs. Gouge's neighbors, initially contacted the county government. She said she became concerned when sludge from the Gouges' digging came downstream where her horse and donkey drink.

"They've run heavy equipment down there before and put oil slicks in the water," Ms. Ewy said. "But they don't do it all the time. It's just occasionally. I don't know what it does to my animals, but I'm sure it's not good."

Mr. Gouge said he had no idea any wetlands violation would be involved when his son Jason, 18, took a backhoe and removed "three or four buckets" of dirt from the stream.

County staff members calculated the dirt pile at 15 feet by 15 feet by 3 1/2 feet.

Jesse Gouge said his wife did not use her position to delay or avoid compliance with the regulations. He attributed the delay to ground conditions, which he said were "either too soft or frozen" since December.

James E. Slater, environmental services administrator, said the Gouge case did get special handling.

"Quite frankly, we were dealing with our boss," he said. "We wanted to make sure it was taken care of, but we also wanted to make sure we extended what sensitivity demanded."

Mr. Slater overruled Ms. Smith's first proposal to notify the Corps of Engineers about the wetlands violation. He said last week that he felt it would be better for Mr. and Mrs. Gouge to contact the federal agency.

Mrs. Gouge said a corps staff member advised putting bales of straw around the dirt pile to keep it intact, which the couple did in January. "We took the backhoe down and tried to move [the dirt], but it was frozen," she said.

The commissioner said she does not plan to ask the county ethics commission to investigate her handling of the issue.

"Why should I? There's no ethics involved here," she said. "The whole world knows about it, so there's no ethics involved."

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