Panel probes 5 appointees' qualifications Ethics Commission chief goes to court for employment files

'I won't be put off'

Investigation drawing Gary administration into legal showdown

June 27, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel's Ethics Commission is investigating whether the Gary administration has filled jobs with hand-picked candidates boasting better personal contacts than qualifications.

Already, the confidential investigation is turning into a legal showdown between the Gary administration and an Ethics Commission criticized in recent months as ineffectual.

The county personnel officer, E. Hilton Wade, failed to meet a Monday deadline to turn over employment files the commission had subpoenaed.

The Ethics Commission's new executive director, Betsy K. Dawson, went back to court late Monday and obtained an order threatening Wade with contempt of court charges if he doesn't produce the files by Saturday.

"If I have a complaint, I'm going to investigate it," said Dawson, a lawyer who became the commission's executive director last month. "I won't be put off."

At the core of the investigation are five county jobs filled from January through July 1995. The positions, which pay between $28,094 and $35,083, are an administrative assistant, an assistant claims adjustor, a clerk for County Executive John G. Gary and two legislative liaisons.

The administration has said it was surprised by the commission's subpoena, and denied it has strayed from official hiring procedure. But administration sources familiar with county personnel policy have questioned whether the candidates hired to fill those positions were picked based on personal relationships.

Candidates for a county position are commonly ranked using a numeric method, known as Sigma-4. A list of the five top-scoring applicants is forwarded to the personnel officer, who certifies the list.

The candidates are then interviewed, with department heads making the final selection.

They have ways of making their choices one of the top five," said a county manager familiar with the Gary administration's hiring policies and who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The investigation reportedly will examine whether proper hiring practices were followed in these cases.

The Ethics Commission has specifically demanded, through +V court order, the Sigma-4 files in addition to a list of applicants, letters of recommendation, proof of certification and lists of eligible employees for each position.

"There has been no attempt on the administration's part not to cooperate with the Ethics Commission," said County Attorney Phillip F. Scheibe. "Only a fool would do that, and I'd like to think we're not a bunch of fools."

Commission investigations are confidential. An ethics inquiry can begin with a citizen or employee complaint, or at the request of one of the seven commissioners. Dawson, who worked for the county's Office of Law from 1977 to 1982, would not comment on what prompted the investigation.

But the Office of Personnel has been at the heart of the county's most contentious political debate in recent months.

Gary, a Republican, has used the department to fulfill a 1994 campaign pledge to reduce personnel costs, which account for 75 percent of Anne Arundel's annual spending.

The department's staff has drafted a series of bills designed to shave personnel spending, including legislation tying future employee pay raises to job performance and a pending bill to reshape Anne Arundel's $750 million pension system. The measures have met with fierce opposition from the county's 3,500 employees.

The Ethics Commission also has suffered its share of controversy, but for almost opposite reasons. Until Dawson was hired last month, the volunteer commission had operated without a director since October when James Jones resigned, citing the commission's lack of financial clout.

The council, however, has approved a $93,300 commission budget for the fiscal year beginning Monday, a 64 percent increase.

County Council members have cast the commission as a group that complains more than it produces.

But by taking on the Office of Personnel, Dawson has engaged in a high-profile fight that could rebuild the commission's reputation and turn it into a player on the county political stage.

She is now sorting through a backlog of ethics complaints that have languished for the last nine months.

"I don't think we're becoming more aggressive. I just think we're trying to catch up," said H. William Gardner, the commission's acting chairman. "We need to move."

Pub Date: 6/27/96

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