The Office of the State Prosecutor has launched an "inquiry" into a controversial zoning vote by County Councilman Charles C. Feaga. The Republican's vote helped two developers who, in a separate deal, plan to build expensive homes on Mr. Feaga's family farm.
The inquiry is an informal investigation that could take a month or more to complete. It was prompted by a Feb. 13 complaint by the Howard County Democratic Central Committee alleging a possible conflict of interest.
It comes as the five-member Howard County Ethics Commission last night began its own review the matter. But local Democratic Party officials fear the commission's review might not go far enough.
The ethics commission met behind closed doors for a little over an hour, although not all the talk was devoted to the Feaga matter. Afterward, Russell Gledhill, the commission chairman, said discussions about the Feaga case would continue at the next meeting, scheduled March 18.
"We're reviewing to see if there were any technical violations of the ethics law," Mr. Gledhill said. Earlier in the day, Mr. Feaga had asked the commission for such a review. Mr. Gledhill said he already planned to review the case.
Mr. Feaga was not asked to attend the ethics board's meeting. At a council meeting last night, he said the Democratic group's complaint relates to his fight to make Howard a two-party county.
"It's politics," Mr. Feaga said.
The complaint says Mr. Feaga voted in January on a zoning amendment that will allow construction of an assisted-care facility near the intersection of U.S. 29 and Hopkins Road. The land is half-owned by two Columbia developers, John F. Liparini and Hugh F. Cole Jr.
Mr. Feaga never disclosed before the vote that he and his four siblings had signed in December an option to sell their 200-acre Ellicott City family farm to Mr. Liparini and Mr. Cole. The developers plan to build as many as 100 homes there.
Mr. Feaga, a proponent of property owners' rights, has said that he would have voted for the zoning amendment regardless of the farm deal. But ethics experts have said that Mr. Feaga should have disclosed the relationship and probably not voted.
Howard County ethics laws speak to "direct" financial gain in conflict-of-interest cases, said Mr. Gledhill, the ethics panel chairman. As a result, he believes the laws do not appear to apply to the Feaga case.
Jim Kraft, a Democratic consultant and past chairman of the county Democratic Central Committee, said that Mr. Gledhill should recuse himself from this case because he appears to have made up his mind. But yesterday, Mr. Gledhill said that neither he nor other commission members have come to any conclusions.
During a part of last night's meeting that was open to the public, Mr. Gledhill disclosed his own past relationships with Mr. Liparini, Mr. Cole and Mr. Feaga.
About five years ago, while he was working for the First American Bank of Maryland, the bank lent money for the developers' projects. As for Mr. Feaga, Mr. Gledhill said, "I consider him a friend, but I don't consider him a close friend."
Mr. Gledhill, who was appointed to the panel in 1988 by then-County Executive Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat, said he would be impartial in the matter. His four colleagues on the panel agreed, saying the relationship was dated or relatively minor.
"I have found in this incestuous little county of ours that everyone knows everyone," said the commission's vice chairman, Rabbi Kenneth Cohen.
The local Democratic Party chairman, Carole Fisher, asked the Maryland state prosecutor's office in a Feb. 13 letter for an independent investigation.
Stephen Montanarelli, chief state prosecutor, said yesterday he will treat the complaint as "an inquiry," which falls short of a criminal investigation.
Mr. Kraft said it would have been easy for Mr. Feaga to avoid any problems. "It would have been so easy for Charlie to get up and say, 'These guys have an option to buy my land,' " Mr. Kraft said.