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Ethical McCarthyism; Anne Arundel: Chief of staff isn't guilty of a conflict just because her brother-in-law is a lobbyist.

ANNE ARUNDEL County Executive Janet S. Owens should not dismiss her chief of staff, Linda Gilligan, just because her brother-in-law is Michael Gilligan. Mr. Gilligan may be a paid lobbyist for Chesapeake Motorsports Development Co., promoter of a controversial racetrack project, but that shouldn't disqualify Ms. Gilligan from serving in county government.

Dismissing Ms. Gilligan over her relationship by marriage would set a precedent that could be carried to the absurd. Any group could conceivably target administration officials and hound them out of their positions for imagined unethical relationships.

In the 1950s, Joseph McCarthy discredited people as "fellow travelers" of the Communist Party. Racetrack opponents in Pasadena similarly demean their cause by seeking removal of public officials with the faintest connection to the project.

This is not to dismiss genuine conflicts of interest, which diminish public confidence in government. Too often in the past, conflicts were winked at, such as council members hiring their spouses as legislative aides and having a say about their compensation. But this looks like an unfair rush to judgment about an imagined conflict, hinging on the faulty assumption that Ms. Gilligan shares her brother-in-law's interest in seeing the completion of the proposed 60,000-seat auto racetrack. Thatisn't a conflict of interest; it's guilt by association.

A simple solution exists. If Ms. Owens doubts her aide's impartiality on this subject, she can exclude her from racetrack decisions. The chief of staff is merely an adviser in this case anyway; the decision rests with Ms. Owens and others. Let's not swing the pendulum from ignoring conflicts of interest to envisioning them at every turn.

Pub Date: 1/21/99

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