Judge questions ethics of new Arundel attorney

January 12, 1995|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Writer

The lawyer named recently as Anne Arundel county attorney secretly bought and sold county land for personal profit when he held the same job 25 years ago.

A judge who presided over a 1976 civil case stemming from the secret land deals said this week he was disturbed by the appointment of PhillipF. Scheibe by County Executive John G. Gary.

"It sounds to me like the fox has bought his way back into the chicken coop," said retired Circuit Judge E. Mackall Childs.

Mr. Gary, who received $4,000 in contributions to his 1994 election campaign from Mr. Scheibe, said yesterday he saw nothing wrong with a county attorney -- or any county employee -- buying surplus land at public county auctions. He said he did not believe the transactions disqualified Mr. Scheibe.

"I'm sticking with the man because even if the perception is that he did something bad, I still think what he brings to the table makes him worth keeping in the job," Mr. Gary said.

Mr. Scheibe denied this week any impropriety.

"It was a public auction and anyone could come in and make these purchases," he said.

But Judge Childs said he was "flabbergasted" by what he learned about Mr. Scheibe's dealings in the one day of testimony taken before the case was settled in 1976.

"It's just the ethics of the thing," he said. "He used for personal profit what information the county had spent its own money to acquire."

Mr. Scheibe made an estimated $52,000 on two surplus county tracts he acquired and resold while serving as county attorney under former County Executive Joseph W. Alton Jr., from 1967 to 1970, according to county land records.

Court records show that Mr. Scheibe used a boyhood friend to conceal the purchase of 40 acres of county land and later was sued when he cut his friend out of the profits on one of those deals, the purchase in 1970 of a 30-acre parcel near Laurel.

According to court and land records, Mr. Scheibe gave his friend, Jack J. McSwain, money to buy the land along the Baltimore Washington Parkway, and sent him to an auction. Mr. McSwain bought the land for $5,100. Mr. Scheibe sold it nine months later for $24,000, but never gave Mr. McSwain his share of the profits.

Mr. McSwain sued Mr. Scheibe Dec. 18, 1972. The suit was resolved Jan. 23, 1976, after one day of testimony, when Mr. Scheibe agreed to pay Mr. McSwain $12,000.

Ran for Congress

Mr. Scheibe said this week that he settled the case to avoid adverse publicity because he was running for Congress at the time.

Testimony at the trial showed that Mr. McSwain also purchased a 10-acre tract near Laurel in 1968 with money Mr. Scheibe lent him.

Mr. Scheibe testified then that he learned the value of the 10-acre parcel from a county assessor and supplied the figure to Mr. McSwain before his partner submitted a sealed bid of $5,500.

He had Mr. McSwain purchase land and transfer it to Millbrook Corp., which he set up in 1968.

"I gave him the money and told him what to bid on them, how much to bid. I guess that's on my behalf," Mr. Scheibe testified at the trial. Mr. McSwain made the purchase, but Mr. Scheibe took title to the land when Mr. McSwain failed to repay the loan. Mr. Scheibe sold that land in 1973 for $38,000, county land records show.

Although Mr. Scheibe said this week he sees nothing wrong with his purchase of the land at a public auction, Mr. McSwain remembered the incidents differently.

Made purchases

He said Mr. Scheibe told him that he needed Mr. McSwain to make the purchases because it would not look right for the

county attorney to buy county land at county auctions.

"I went out and bid for it because it would've looked bad for the county attorney to stand up there and bid on county land," said Mr. McSwain, now a retired truck driver living in Ocean City.

He said Mr. Scheibe was so thrilled with the $5,100 they paid for the 30-acre parcel that he gave "me a big hug" after the auction.

Mr. Scheibe, 61, said this week that his land deals were investigated by the Anne Arundel County State's Attorney's office in the 1970s and that no criminal charges were filed.

Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Warren B. Duckett Jr., one of two state's attorneys to look into the case, confirmed that.

"It was all a civil matter," he said.

Mr. Scheibe also said that he disclosed all of his financial holdings when he was serving on the County Council and decided to run for Congress in 1972.

"This is not something that I ever hid. I made the public aware of what I did," he said.

Mr. Gary said Mr. Scheibe's campaign contribution had nothing to do with the appointment. He hired Mr. Scheibe because he has known him for 25 years and he valued his experience.

The county's ethics code was amended Dec. 12 to prohibit any employee from using his position for "private gain or the gain of another." The code also prohibits employees from disclosing confidential information about county business.

James Jones, executive director of the county's five-member ethics commission, said this week the group could make a recommendation to the county executive on the dismissal of an employee for serious violations of the ethics code.

But Mr. Gary said he was not going to dismiss Mr. Scheibe for a mistake made more than 25 years ago.

"I don't think I'm going to throw away this man's experience as a county councilman, as a county attorney and as a private attorney for one instance of bad judgment 25 years ago," he said.

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