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Ethics panel won't probe land transfer


The Anne Arundel County Ethics Commission has declined to investigate the county's decision to transfer a 16-acre floodplain to an exclusive South County country club that County Executive Janet S. Owens belongs to and a close adviser of hers partly owns.

But Councilman John J. Klocko III, who requested the ethics probe and has said the land transfer last year was illegal, is not taking no for an answer. He argues that the commission must investigate and issue an advisory opinion.

"It's mandatory they investigate," Klocko, a Crofton Republican, said yesterday. He sent the commission a letter citing provisions of the county code that he says support his contention.

Betsy K. Dawson, the commission's executive director, declined to comment on Klocko's letter but said the commission is required to issue advisory opinions only if a county employee asks about his or her own conduct. And she said the commission need not investigate every complaint it receives.

"If the ethics commission does not believe there is a legitimate allegation of an ethics violation, there is nothing to investigate," she said, emphasizing that she was speaking generally.

Klocko wants the commission to examine whether the transaction with Old South Country Club violated county ethics law. He also maintains that the transfer was illegal. To that end, he said, he might ask the state attorney general's office to review the deal.

County Attorney Linda M. Schuett - an Owens appointee who works for the council and the executive - has said the land transfer corrected a 9-year-old drafting error and complied with the law.

Owens hailed the ethics commission's decision.

"I'm pleased it's been put to rest," she said. "It's regrettable that staff's integrity has been impugned, as well as the integrity of ... the leadership at Old South."

The ethics commission offered no explanation for its decision Monday night not to review whether the land transfer violated ethics laws.

In a one-sentence letter to Klocko, Dawson wrote: "At its meeting last night, the ethics commission considered your letter and declined to open an investigation in this matter."

In his request last month, Klocko noted that the transfer involved "close policy advisers, friends and political contributors of the County Executive and transpired soon after she took office."

Among the country club's part-owners is William F. Chaney, a lifelong friend of Owens and her campaign treasurer.

Klocko said that even if his ethics inquiry goes nowhere, questions about the transfer's legality are "very much an active issue."

Schuett and county planning officials say the land exchange has an innocent explanation.

She said title to the land was inadvertently given to the county in 1990, even though a subdivision agreement called for the county to hold only an easement to prevent construction in the floodplain. Last year, Owens signed a document transferring the land after a bank conducting a title search noticed that the club did not own the 16 acres.

Schuett said county law does not require the county to own floodplains. She also concluded that the Owens administration did not have to tell the council that the land was being returned.

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