Officials to name ethics officer


Having decided to scrap the county's ethics commission, the Carroll commissioners will begin this week carving a new model for ethics enforcement out of the rubble left by a two-month feud with members of the deposed panel.

They will start by appointing a new ethics officer, who will be given the task of revamping the county's ethics policies. Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said he would like to make the appointment this week.

The county's chief of staff, Steve Powell, said more than 20 residents have expressed interest during the past few months in helping the county with ethics enforcement. That list, the commissioners said, would make a good starting point in their search for an ethics officer. All three said the new official should be a "nonpolitical" person.

Minnich said Friday that the ethics officer would probably be chosen from a handful of candidates whom Powell will soon present to the commissioners, though he declined to identify those candidates.

"We want it to be someone with integrity and understanding of the process but no political investment in the process," said Minnich, who has taken the lead among the commissioners on the ethics issue.

It remains unclear what steps will follow the appointment of the ethics officer. Powell said he would help the new ethics officer create a task force that would work with the commissioners to overhaul the county ethics code. Minnich said he would like to see a resolution within three months. But, so far, the commissioners have talked more about general themes than about a specific vision for ethics enforcement.

The stab at restructuring follows two months of conflict with the old ethics panel, which accused Minnich and Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr. of trying to thwart an investigation of Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, who also is under criminal investigation by the state prosecutor's office. The ethics panel members have not commented on the commissioners' vote last week but have threatened to fight in court for the right to continue investigating Gouge.

Minnich and Jones accused the ethics panel of being tainted by politics when they first suspended the three members - John Harner, Suzanne Primoff and James F.W. Talley - in December. They said the ethics commission had lost all credibility with Carroll residents and thus couldn't do its job effectively.

The ethics board members criticized the commissioners for suspending them in the middle of the Gouge investigation. But Jones and Minnich said that investigation, which continued for more than a year, was a perfect example of what was wrong because it dragged on as a distraction without producing specific charges.

"You can't have a cadre of political people who can hold an entire government hostage with the threat of embarrassment," Minnich said. "That just can't happen going forward."

Minnich acknowledged that eliminating political favoritism from the board will be difficult given the relative intimacy of the county's political scene.

"The people who are really interested in serving tend to be the same people who are more interested in politics," he said.

That's why the commissioners say it would be best for the ethics officer to refer some cases to outside reviewers such as the state prosecutor's office. Since the ethics panel was suspended, the county has referred one case to the state prosecutor and will refer another soon, Powell said, though he said he could not discuss the details of those cases.

Minnich also has floated the idea of creating a pool of county residents from which the ethics officer could tailor review panels for specific cases. That format would allow more flexibility in keeping people with vested interests away from a given issue, he said.

The system would be a hybrid of proposals the commissioners considered for either expanding the ethics commission or making ethics enforcement the responsibility of one officer.

Either method would be legal, state ethics officials have told the county, though the other counties in the Baltimore metropolitan area have fixed ethics boards.

The commissioners said the task force would be responsible for drafting the specific language that would create the new format.

"We don't know where this is going at this point," Gouge said. "It's sort of open-ended."

The commissioners also have said they want enforcement of the ethics code to be simplified. State law says counties must have a mechanism in place to review outside employment by county workers, financial disclosure forms submitted by county officials and any complaints about conflicts of interest in government.

The commissioners say they don't want the ethics officer to do anything beyond those basics. The old panel, for example, requested subpoena power - a leap the commissioners said would go beyond the appropriate parameters of the ethics code.

"In this county, we've turned this into the Spanish Inquisition," Minnich said. "But it doesn't have to be what it's been."

The commissioners also say they are prepared for their conflict with the old panel to resurface in the form of legal action. They said they decided not to let that threat stop them from moving forward with changes.

"We just can't," Gouge said after Tuesday's vote. "This is about moving forward."

Talley said last month that he would fight for his board's right to investigate Gouge. "I'm willing to take a little personal humiliation to get us through this," he said at the time.

Reached last week, Talley declined to comment on a possible legal response. Calls to James E. Edwards, the attorney for the ethics board members, were not returned.

The ethics commission members have said their reputations were never questioned before they began investigating Gouge, a four-term commissioner.

That investigation began after contractor Charles Stambaugh complained to the ethics commission about an argument he had with Jill Gebhart, the commissioner's daughter, in December 2001. Stambaugh accused Gebhart of using her mother's name to try to intimidate him.

The investigation did not result in charges stemming from the dispute between Stambaugh and Gebhart, but it unearthed other potential violations, the ethics commission said in a letter dated June 24. Those alleged violations included the possibility that Gouge had influenced Stambaugh to reduce the cost of his work at Gebhart's Hampstead business by $1,000, according to the letter.

An attorney for the ethics commission later accused a member of the county attorney's office of improperly seizing commission files at the behest of a county commissioner.

Minnich said he would welcome a legal challenge because he's confident it would reflect worse on the ethics commission members than it would on the county commissioners.

He described information he has learned about the commission as "appalling" and "even worse than I thought it was." He did not offer specifics.

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