Feaga denies conflict in zoning vote Councilman sold option on his farm to developers

Separate deal not revealed

Buyers say they received no favors.

February 04, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

Shortly after Howard County Councilman Charles C. Feaga sold an option to buy his Ellicott City farm to two developers, he voted for a zoning amendment needed by the developers for a project on a Fulton property -- a possible conflict of interest that he never disclosed.

Mr. Feaga did not recuse himself from voting on the zoning amendment, which was approved, 3-2, by the County Council on Jan. 2 -- a vote that went against the recommendation of the

county Department of Planning and Zoning.

During four council discussions on the zoning amendment over three months, Mr. Feaga never mentioned that he was involved in the separate land deal with the developers.

In an interview last week, Mr. Feaga confirmed the December sale of the option to buy 200 acres of his family farm to a company owned by Columbia developers Hugh F. Cole Jr. and John F. Liparini.

He said he gave the developers no special treatment in the vote on the Fulton zoning amendment less than a month after he and his four siblings sold the option to them. He said he had no reason to publicly mention the sale of the option.

"I've always put a very large amount of distance between sitting in that [council] chair and any personal gain I might have," said Mr. Feaga, who may seek the Republican candidacy for the Howard County executive's office in two years.

Mr. Liparini and Mr. Cole -- who also affirm their purchase of the option to buy the Feaga farmland off Frederick Road -- said they received no favors from him. "I don't see where Charlie would have any reason to recuse himself," Mr. Cole said.

But experts on political ethics said that Mr. Feaga should have publicly disclosed his family farm deal and not voted on the zoning case.

"It's a conflict of interest," said William Weston, a University of Baltimore Law School professor who lives in Columbia. "Nothing against Charlie, but he should have disclosed this and abstained. It's a no-brainer."

Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland, a watchdog group, added: "This is a problem. Conflicts of interest are things that create the appearance of a conflict of interest as well as any conflict of interest itself."

And Benjamin Ginsberg, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist, noted: "Ethics laws were designed to prevent government officials from being involved in business relations with private interests they regulate in their official capacity."

Not voting on the zoning amendment "would have been the ethically appropriate course of action," Mr. Ginsburg said.

Even so, Mr. Feaga may not have violated county ethics laws. Russell Gledhill, Howard County Ethics Commission chairman, said the laws apply to cases in which politicians generate direct financial gain from their votes.

Mr. Feaga has no direct ties to the Fulton land, according to county records, the developers and Mr. Feaga.

Ethics chief won't comment

Interpretations of Howard County ethics laws are left to the five-member county Ethics Commission. Mr. Gledhill said Thursday that he would have to receive a written complaint from a citizen and review the case before commenting.

Approval of the zoning amendment will permit construction of a continuing care facility for the elderly on part of 104 undeveloped acres in southern Howard County near the intersection of U.S. 29 and Johns Hopkins Road. That land is owned by a partnership that, in turn, is half-owned by Mr. Cole, Mr. Liparini and one of their companies, records show.

The land's business-oriented zoning originally did not allow construction of the facility for the elderly, according to Mr. Liparini and county records. The developers' request for a zoning amendment allowing the elderly care center was recommended against last August by the county's planning department.

Mr. Liparini now hopes that the facility -- where elderly can live with various stages of assistance -- will spur other development on the Fulton site. He said that, in voting for the zoning amendment, Mr. Feaga simply was following that logic.

He claimed that the Feaga farm deal was "public knowledge."

But two weeks ago, when first contacted about the matter by a reporter, Mr. Feaga refused to say who had purchased the option on his family farm. And several other Howard council members, contacted this week, said they did not know about Mr. Feaga's business relationship with Mr. Cole and Mr. Liparini.

Mr. Feaga likens his political relationship to the two developers to his political relationships with friends. He said that, if he recused himself on County Council votes that affected his friends, he would never vote.

Long before the zoning amendment vote, Mr. Feaga and his siblings had been trying to sell the farm, where Mr. Feaga still raises black Angus beef cattle.

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