Ethics panel puts spotlight on patronage Politicians defend system of rewards for campaign loyalists

'Nothing new'

Critics say hirings may constitute illegal cronyism

June 30, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

For years it has been an unmentioned perquisite of power, the secret equivalent of a corner office or prime parking space.

As reward for hard work on the campaign trail, county executives have used their authority to award a few political loyalists with civil service jobs. These are not cabinet-rank political appointees, but the vital underlings who do not shape policy but see that it is carried out.

"This is nothing new," said Robert R. Neall, Anne Arundel's county executive from 1990 through 1994. "It's something we did, and something others did before us."

While timeworn, the practice also may be illegal. Anne Arundel is now trying to determine whether a benign -- even beneficial -- system of political patronage is at its core unethical.

Last week, the Anne Arundel Ethics Commission began answering that question by investigating whether top county officials filled five of the county's 3,500 merit jobs by appointment rather than prescribed civil service regulations that include tests, interviews and other supposedly impartial selection criteria.

The commission, which has had a stormy relationship with the county's Republican administration, is specifically interested in

whether County Executive John G. Gary used his influence to hire members of his 1994 campaign team and his House of Delegates staff for merit jobs.

The county's Public Ethics code states: "An employee may not use the prestige, title, or authority of the employee's office or position for the employee's private gain or the gain of others." Those found breaking the code face dismissal, and up to $1,000 in fines and six months in jail.

"The whole merit system is a protection against cronyism and favoritism," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Maryland Common Cause, who helped draft Anne Arundel's ethics code in 1992. "The design is to make sure that government employees are qualified, efficient and effective. The appointment process doesn't guarantee that."

Merit system 'too strict'

Neall and others, however, believe the merit system is too strict. He said it often prevents the hiring of tried-and-true applicants because they may not have scored as high on standardized tests as other contenders. A county executive fills roughly 20 top-echelon positions within the administration by appointment. The rest are expected to pass through merit review.

"If anything, the county has too many merit system employees," said Neall, a Republican and political confidante of Gary's. "The system has worked in spite of itself. If you make someone director of public works and he has 1,200 employees under him, he needs to have a team of people around him he can trust."

The confidential ethics inquiry, which has added stature to a commission once considered a toothless watchdog, spilled into the courts last week.

On Friday, Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Lawrence H. Rushworth ruled that the administration could keep employment files subpoenaed by the commission at its Riva Road law offices and still comply with the court order. The commission's new executive director, Betsy K. Dawson, will be able to make copies of the documents but not take the originals to her Arundel Center quarters.

The court skirmish was the latest in the commission's stormy relationship with the administration. Since created by voter referendum in 1992, the commission has been alternately cast as a panel of complaining do-gooders and now as a sharp thorn in the side of the Gary administration.

Dawson, who worked in the county's Office of Law from 1977 through 1982, has turned the two-person department into a political player by taking on the powerful Office of Personnel -- and Gary himself.

Nine-month vacancy

Behind the scenes, Dawson's aggressive tactics are being explained partly by her rocky start in the job. The post had been vacant for nine months when Dawson was selected by the seven-member Ethics Commission on May 6 during a closed-door meeting. The commissioners had winnowed a 70-applicant field to three finalists, finally settling on Dawson.

Weeks before, however, Gary met with former commission Chairwoman Myrna Siegel to discuss a possible new executive director. Gary's recommendation: retired Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Warren B. Duckett Jr.

Duckett applied for the $36,517-a-year position, but he did not make the cut of 14 people interviewed for the post. After Dawson's selection, Siegel was not reappointed by Gary to a second term on the seven-member panel. Siegel refuses to speculate whether the events were related.

"I don't know why he did what he did," Siegel said. "We had no discussions about it."

Said Lisa Ritter, Gary's spokeswoman: "When you have change that's always a positive. You begin to look at areas that otherwise might not have been looked at."

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