One ethics measure passes in legislature second fails; Both grew out of issues with Howard councilmen


Two bills that grew from ethical issues involving Howard County councilmen last year met different fates at the recently ended General Assembly session.

A bill requiring applicants in Zoning Board cases to disclose business dealings with board members -- which grew from an ethics case involving Councilman Charles C. Feaga -- passed the Assembly.

But another bill, requiring full disclosure of contributions for elections to nonpublic offices -- which grew from a case involving Councilman C. Vernon Gray -- died in committee.

The difference, said Del. Shane Pendergrass -- an east Columbia Democrat who sponsored both -- was that the first bill was specific to Howard County, while the second attempted to regulate public officials over the state, including the delegates who voted on it.

"It stopped like a ton of bricks," Pendergrass said.

The Zoning Board bill grows out of a January 1996 vote by Feaga, a West Friendship Republican. Council members double as members of the Zoning Board.

A developer who held an option to buy Feaga's family farm was seeking a change in the zoning regulations to go forward with an unrelated project, an elderly care center in Fulton. Feaga cast the decisive vote as the change passed the council 3-2.

Feaga has said that he gave the developer no special treatment and did not know the developer seeking the zoning regulation change had the option on his farm. The county Ethics Commission and the state prosecutor's office investigated and cleared Feaga of wrongdoing.

Zoning Board measure

But Pendergrass, a former council member, argued that business dealings between Zoning Board members and developers should be revealed. Her bill, which needs the signature of Gov. Parris N. Glendening to become law, puts that burden of disclosure on developers.

Ironically, such a law would not have applied to Feaga's case, since it was a zoning regulation change decided by the County Council, not the Zoning Board.

Feaga criticized Pendergrass' bill, saying that revealing all business dealings of developers could increase the chance of tainting Zoning Board proceedings.

"In some ways, it's better if they don't identify themselves," Feaga said. "I don't want to know when I make a decision."

Nonpublic offices bill

The second bill, which failed in the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee, would have regulated contributions to nonpublic offices, such as one sought last summer by Gray, an east Columbia Democrat.

Last summer, he raised $14,300 from 11 donors -- including $3,000 from Comcast Cablevision, which the County Council directly regulates -- for his run for the vice presidency of the National Association of Counties (NACo), a lobbying group.

In letters to 50 prospective corporate donors, Gray said the contributions need not be disclosed on election reports. But after The Sun reported on the fund-raising campaign, Gray decided to reveal his donors.

An Ethics Commission investigation cleared Gray of wrongdoing but also urged him to reveal his donors, which he did several months later.

He lost the NACo election but plans to run for the office this year -- and has promised to again disclose his contributions.

Contributions to campaigns for public office are subject to limits and regular public reporting. Pendergrass' bill sought to require such disclosure for contributions for nonpublic offices such as NACo.

"[Donations] can only be one of two things, a contribution or a gift," she said. "And gifts are illegal, and contributions are limited."

Pub Date: 4/20/97

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad