Conflict said to cloud inquiry

The Baltimore Sun

The state investigator heading a probe involving the Aberdeen city government has deep political roots in Harford County, leading some of those subpoenaed in the case and watchdog groups to raise questions about a potential conflict of interest.

Stephen M. Wright, an accountant whose no-bid contract with the city is among the documents subpoenaed by the office of the state prosecutor, said he has contacted State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh and the agency's chief investigator to complain, while the city's mayor is calling the investigation politically motivated.

According to a copy of the subpoena, the special agent working on the case is Joseph Price, a retired state trooper who recently served two terms on the county's Republican central committee. Price joined the state prosecutor's office last fall after he lost his bid to become Harford sheriff in the GOP primary.

Investigators are set to receive documents tomorrow related to several issues in Aberdeen over the past year and a half, including the hiring of Wright to audit the city's finances. Wright is a business partner of Mayor S. Fred Simmons and received nearly $100,000 for about six months of work, an arrangement some have criticized as unethical.

Wright is also a member of Harford's Republican central committee who was nearly removed in 2005 after clashing with other members. He is closely tied to Simmons, a Republican who angered party activists when he supported Democrat Martin O'Malley just days before last fall's gubernatorial election.

Beyond the Aberdeen inquiry, Price's employment with the state prosecutor raises questions about the independence of the agency, which investigates allegations of public corruption and ethical violations.

"The question is, is a person with a partisan political background the right person for a job that is going to focus on political corruption? Was he the best choice for the job to begin with?" said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause in Washington. "That seems to put an unnecessary tension between the job and his partisan history. He's in a difficult situation either way he turns."

Rohrbaugh defended Price, who is assigned to the inquiry with chief investigator James Cabezas. Ultimately, Rohrbaugh determines how an investigation proceeds and whether charges are brought, he said.

"I know [Price's] background as a Maryland State Police officer, and his personal views have no relevance to what he does in the office," Rohrbaugh said. "I am aware of everybody's background before I hire them, and I assign cases to the best people who are qualified."

Price, who was on vacation and could not be reached for comment, has worked in law enforcement for almost 30 years, including stints with the Bel Air Police Department and overseeing the Maryland attorney general's investigative division for the state police. A church elder and active member of a local volunteer fire department, he also has been extensively involved in partisan politics.

He was appointed to the central committee in 1993, elected in 1994, and re-elected in 1998. He became vice chairman in 1995 and was chairman from 1996 to 1999. As chairman, he was responsible for identifying and supporting Republican candidates for office through door-to-door literature, fundraisers and voter registration efforts. The central committee also appoints replacements when an elected official leaves office.

Being active in politics should not preclude someone in law enforcement from getting a job, said Charles O. Monk II, a former chairman of the state ethics commission.

"This is a democracy, and being involved in politics is a good thing, not a bad thing," said Monk, a Baltimore attorney.

But potential conflicts of interest could present distractions, Monk said.

"Like any other investigator, you have to be careful not to investigate matters where you have a personal interest," he said. "When you do, you step out, and there's no exception."

Wright and Price did not serve concurrently on the committee. But Wright has been a contentious presence since becoming active in Harford's political scene. In 2005, members pushed to have Wright thrown off the committee, an effort that was eventually shelved after county politicians intervened, current and former members said.

"My history with [Wright] was turbulent," said William G. Christoforo, the past central committee chairman. "I was feeling a lot of pressure from people in the party to keep him on the committee."

Last year, Wright backed one of two groups of candidates that vied for central committee membership, which some members say now constitute rival factions. Wright also supported Price's opponent in the GOP sheriff's primary, Norman Cochran, contributing $300 to his campaign, according to finance records.

Price's brother, David, serves on the central committee and heads the bylaws committee, which this year instituted provisions to remove a member who is indicted. The current chairman, Michael Geppi, said the move was made to "clean up" outdated rules, and David Price said he had no knowledge of the investigation at the time. But some said it seemed strange.

"When it was brought forth, although there's merit to the initiative, the timing was very odd," said Robert B. Thomas, a member of the central committee who is a spokesman for County Executive David R. Craig. "At the time, everybody was above board or appeared to have been so."

Wright's contract to audit Aberdeen's finances came under scrutiny last year and is among a wide range of documents relating to city functions that is sought by last month's subpoena.

Simmons has said the investigation is a part of a "smear campaign" to discredit him leading up to November's city election. He claims the allegations are unfounded but will gain traction with those seeking to undermine his administration.

"I think it's very possible that it's a retribution for my endorsement of the governor [O'Malley]," the mayor said.

David Price said his younger brother, whose campaign for sheriff was heavy on themes of integrity, always declines to discuss his investigations.

"He won't give me the time of day when it comes to his job," David Price said. "I knew about [the investigation] when I read it in The Sun. I'd say that under oath."

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