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County lawyer affirms ruling

A legal opinion released yesterday says House Speaker Michael E. Busch is not subject to all of Anne Arundel County's ethics laws, even though he is a county employee - a ruling that almost certainly will prevent an Ethics Commission review of his dual roles.

The letter from County Attorney Linda Schuett to Anne Arundel's Ethics Commission affirms an earlier opinion by the state attorney general. Busch previously had said that if certain rules were applied to him, he would need to give up his speaker's post or his job as assistant to the county's recreation and parks director.

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"It's good to have it clarified," Busch said yesterday. "It puts this issue to rest."

Betsy K. Dawson, Ethics Commission executive director, declined to comment yesterday on Busch, but said, "I suspect the Office of Law's letter was very well-reasoned, as was the attorney general's opinion, and I imagine the Ethics Commission will accept it."

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Dawson released the Aug. 22 letter yesterday at the request of The Sun.

A few months ago, the county Ethics Commission appeared poised to review Busch's balancing act as the state's most powerful delegate and a county employee. But after the state attorney general's office issued its opinion in June stating that the county cannot restrict Busch's activities as a state lawmaker, the commission turned to the county Office of Law for advice.

Busch requested the attorney general's opinion after a May 29 article in The Sun. The attorney general's office provides legal advice to legislators.

The newspaper disclosed that Busch - a five-term legislator and 24-year county employee - has introduced legislation that directly benefits the county agency for which he works.

A bill he introduced in 2001 directed $250,000 in state money to help turn county farmland into lighted ball fields.

At the same time, Busch has received much larger pay increases in recent years than co-workers.

In 2000, County Executive Janet S. Owens, a fellow Democrat, raised Busch's salary after he considered leaving his county and delegate jobs. The raise cleared the way for Busch's salary to jump to $84,862 a year, a 41 percent increase over 2 1/2 years.

Some ethics experts said Busch, 56, had a conflict of interest. Busch said he could balance his two roles but acknowledged potential problems with a county law that bars county employees from assisting a company or agency in matters in which the county might have a competing interest.

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If that provision were applied to Busch, he would not be able to vote on several issues at the State House and would be forced to resign one of his jobs, he said. In that case, Busch had said, he would quit his county post.

Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe wrote to Busch on June 9 that "it would be inappropriate for the County Ethics Commission to attempt to limit those matters on which you could vote as a legislator."

Schuett, an Owens appointee, said before reviewing the attorney general's opinion that her job is not influenced by politics. Owens is a political ally of Busch.

The letter from Schuett and her top assistants states that the county cannot review the actions of a state legislator.

"Any other conclusion might result in local government exercising power in a way that interferes with state governmental functions," the letter states.

It goes on to say that while legislators who work for the county aren't subject to specific abuse-of-office or secondary-employment ethics laws, they are not exempt from all county ethics laws. They also are subject to state ethics laws, and state officials have said that Busch did not violate those laws. Busch has said it would be problematic for delegates from different counties to be subject to varying local ethics laws.

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Busch is one of three Anne Arundel delegates who also work for the county. Of the state's 141 delegates, he is one of 18 who hold government jobs in addition to their State House jobs.


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