The Howard County Ethics Commission has concluded that County Councilman Charles C. Feaga did not violate the county's conflict of interest laws when he voted on a zoning amendment earlier this year that helped two developers who have a contract to buy his family farm.
In an advisory opinion released yesterday, the five-member panel stated that Mr. Feaga never received "direct financial impact" from his Jan. 2 vote.
"It's the only conclusion they could have made," Mr. Feaga said yesterday, praising the ethics commission for what he said was an in-depth investigation.
But an ethics expert says that, regardless of the legalities, Mr. Feaga should have avoided even the appearance of conflict of interest by not voting on the zoning change.
"When you have a conflict, you should avoid it, rather than worrying about the specific letter of the statute," said William Weston, a University of Baltimore law school professor and a senior fellow at the university's Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics.
At issue was Mr. Feaga's vote on a zoning amendment that would allow construction of a "continuing care facility" for the elderly on land where such facilities were not previously allowed.
Two Columbia-based developers, Hugh F. Cole Jr. and John F. Liparini, who needed the change for a piece of land they partially own in Fulton, purchased an option last year to buy Mr. Feaga's family farm on the western edge of Ellicott City.
Mr. Feaga, a long-time Republican from western Howard County, never disclosed the farm deal at the time of the vote nor did he recuse himself from voting. Since the connection was made public by The Sun in February, Mr. Feaga has maintained the land deal and zoning vote were separate matters and that he had done nothing wrong.
"I felt positive that I had done the correct thing and had acted in the best interests of Howard County," he said yesterday.
But Mr. Weston disagreed, saying Mr. Feaga and other politicians must go beyond specific ethics statutes. Mr. Feaga "needs to go back to conflict-of-interest school," said Mr. Weston, a Howard County resident.
"Charlie is a nice fellow," added Mr. Weston. "I think he cares about government and the people of Howard County. But this was a matter of judgment on his part . A conflict of interest is anything that clouds your judgment and ability to give 100-percent, absolute loyalty to the government."
Mr. Feaga, however, says the farm deal in no way clouded his judgment.
As part of its investigation, Howard's ethics commission reviewed the sales contract for the family farm.
"In our opinion, based on comparable sales in the area, the sale price seems to be within a range of fair market prices," the 11-page report states, adding that "other portions of the agreement seem to be the result of a typical 'arms length' business agreement."
The commission interviewed Mr. Feaga, his sister, one of the developers, Mr. Feaga's family attorney and Joe Rutter, director of the county's department of planning and zoning. The commission then determined that Mr. Feaga was not involved in negotiations to sell the farm and reluctantly signed the sales agreement.
Pub Date: 5/03/96