Two former Anne Arundel County officials had no right to appeal a decision that threw them off a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the county, the state's highest court ruled yesterday.
Depending on how the Court of Appeals decision plays out, it ultimately could cost former County Attorney Phillip F. Scheibe his share of the judgment in that lawsuit. It could also cost Robert J. Dvorak, a former top administrator with the county, his expert fees.
Scheibe is one of the lawyers in a 2001 case, known as the Cambridge Commons case, claiming Anne Arundel County misspent fees it collected from developers. Last year, Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Philip T. Caroom ruled that the county owed $4.7 million plus interest to homeowners because it inappropriately spent the money developers of their neighborhoods paid the county in impact fees. That decision is on appeal.
But the county's Ethics Commission last year found that Scheibe and Dvorak had a conflict of interest in that lawsuit, as they were involved in the decision-making about impact fees when they were county employees and then played key roles in the lawsuit against the county.
Because the county law office, which Scheibe headed, and Dvorak's administrative jobs dealt with those fees in the 1990s, the Ethics Commission ruled that neither should be involved with the lawsuit against the county or get money from it.
The men argued that they used public records and reports to build their case.
Yesterday's decision may end up creating another legal tangle.
"I believe that the Ethics Commission will be going to Circuit Court to compel compliance with its order," said Betsy K. Dawson, the executive director of the commission and its lawyer.
She called Scheibe's role in the lawsuit against the county an "egregious" violation of the county ethics law. "For him to receive remuneration for that would violate the public trust even more," she said.
It is unclear if the men would be subject to fines.
But Scheibe's co-counsel in the Cambridge Commons development fee case contended yesterday's Court of Appeals ruling has little meaning because the judge in that case refused a county request to remove Scheibe from the case.
"Until Judge Caroom tells us that Phil and Bob can't participate, then I am not concerned about it," said John R. Greiber Jr., who is the lawyer with Scheibe.
Besides, Greiber said, his fellow attorney might decide to challenge an effort by the Ethics Commission to enforce its decision. The ruling does not address the heart of Scheibe and Dvorak's claim - that the ethics commission has no jurisdiction over them and that former county employees should not be subject indefinitely to an ethics rule limiting their work.
"The appellants' arguments are to no avail, ... " Chief Judge Robert M. Bell wrote for the unanimous court.
Nor does the 16-page ruling touch on the politics of the case. Scheibe and Dvorak claimed that the ethics complaint filed by then-County Executive Janet S. Owens was a ploy to delay the resolution of the case until her term in office ended last year, an allegation she long denied. The lawsuit sought more than $20 million from the county.
The Court of Appeals ruled that under the law, Dvorak and Scheibe could not appeal a decision by the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court that upheld the Ethics Commission against them.
"It's a nondecision," said Dvorak, who said he was not yet paid for his evaluation of county records. "I am not going to lose any sleep over it."
Scheibe could not be reached yesterday. He withdrew from a similar case after the Attorney Grievance Commission reprimanded him for a conflict of interest, according to the ethics board.