Ethics inquiries limits discussed


In the wake of the Anne Arundel County Council chairman's admission that he violated county ethics law several times last year, some of his colleagues say future investigations should not be allowed to drag on so long.

One idea being discussed is to set a time limit on inquiries by the county Ethics Commission, whose scrutiny of Daniel E. Klosterman Jr. dates to February 1999.

"If there is a time limit, maybe they would put forth more of an effort to make a decision in a timely manner," said Councilwoman Shirley Murphy, a Pasadena Democrat and staunch Klosterman ally. Murphy and some other council members expressed support yesterday for Klosterman, who acknowledged improperly lobbying county agencies and officials on behalf of an accounting client, TGMI Contractors Inc. of Cockeysville.

Under a consent order released Tuesday by the Ethics Commission, Klosterman pledged not to advocate for TGMI Inc. or any other clients with county business.

Despite warnings from the commission, he pushed TGMI's bid to build airplane hangars at county-owned Tipton Airport. (The company did not receive a contract for the hangars.) He also complained to County Executive Janet S. Owens about alleged late payments on a $14 million jail addition TGMI is building in Parole.

"I'm sure all it was was, he was helping his clients who have county business," Murphy said. "Was it stupid? Yes."

Klosterman, a Millersville Democrat, has not spoken publicly since the Ethics Commission announced the settlement of the case. He did not return messages again yesterday. Aside from a written reprimand, he faces no other punishment or fine.

Murphy has not decided how much time would be appropriate for an investigation. She had suggested three weeks, but the Ethics Commission's executive director, Betsy K. Dawson, told her a year would make more sense.

It is not clear that the council can impose time limits. The county ethics law must mirror the state's. Because state law does not restrict the length of investigations, the council would have to justify the action to the state Ethics Commission.

"The [state] commission has to determine if there is any validity to that," said John E. O'Donnell, executive director of the state commission. He said he could not recall any jurisdiction making such a request.

Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, said the county should steer clear of attempts to cut the length of investigations. "When you attempt to put arbitrary constraints on that kind of process, it seems to me that your commitment to serious ethical standards is questionable," said Skullney.

She said Klosterman's efforts on behalf of TGMI spanned nine months - the most recent occurring Nov. 1 after a second Ethics Commission warning four months earlier - and called the reprimand "extraordinarily lenient."

The commission's powers are limited. It cannot, for instance, impose a fine but must ask a Circuit Court judge to do so. Then the limit is $1,000 under state law.

In Klosterman's case, the commission also ran up against his unwillingness to answer questions. In March, he said he was too busy doing tax returns. Then he persuaded a judge to force the commission to justify its request.

Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, an Annapolis Democrat, said she has doubts about time limits. "Isn't the purpose of an investigation to try to determine what the real facts are?" she said.

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