Ethics panel expected to resolve probe Gary hiring is subject of investigation

Only item on agenda

Aug. 29 meeting seen as a test for commission

August 21, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel's Ethics Commission will convene a special, closed-door meeting next week to decide whether County Executive John G. Gary illegally filled civil service jobs with former campaign workers and State House staff.

Called by the commission's executive director, Betsy K. Dawson, the meeting is expected to resolve an investigation that began in June. The result could be public censure, fines and even dismissal for top administration officials.

The matter is the only item on the Aug. 29 meeting agenda.

How the commission handles the politically charged investigation could reveal whether the panel has finally assumed the watchdog role county voters had in mind when they created it by referendum in 1992.

Since then, the commission has lost an executive director, who resigned last year amid complaints of low pay and administration interference, and a chairwoman who was not reappointed. County Council members have criticized the panel as toothless, more interested in its own budget than in the conflict-of-interest laws it was created to draft and enforce.

Last year, the commission issued five opinions and no censures, according to its annual report. Now it is taking on one of the Gary administration's most controversial departments, responsible in recent months for an aggressive campaign to cut Anne Arundel's personnel costs.

"Certainly for a new commission this will be a test," said Myrna Siegel, the commission's first chairwoman, whom Gary did not reappoint to the post earlier this year. "They have to make their decision based on the facts, not extraneous things."

The current investigation, which reaches into the top levels of Anne Arundel government, could change the commission's weak image. Driven by Dawson, appointed to her $36,517-a-year post in May, the inquiry is trying to determine whether the timeworn practice of rewarding political loyalty with merit jobs is unethical.

According to the county Public Ethics code, "An employee may not use the prestige, title, or authority of the employee's office for the gain of others." Those found violating the law face dismissal, up to $1,000 in fines, and six months in jail. The commission would make its recommendation for punishment to the County Council.

But County Attorney Phillip F. Scheibe, who has not been notified of next week's meeting, predicts that the investigation will exonerate the administration. He said ethics commissioners have complained that the inquiry is dragging on "to the detriment of the commission."

"I've got a feeling it will fall short of Watergate," he said. "The whole thing is quite a mystery."

Dawson declined to comment on next week's meeting or the investigation, citing confidentiality regulations. "We'll report what action we take, if we take any, when it's appropriate," she said.

The investigation initially was focused on whether the Gary administration filled five of 3,500 county civil service jobs by appointment rather than by following a prescribed hiring procedure that includes tests, interviews, and other impartial selection criteria.

The probe narrowed quickly to four positions, ranging in salary from $18,923 to $35,083. Three of those jobs -- two on the executive staff -- were filled by people who worked for Gary's successful 1994 campaign. A longtime staff member of Gary's House of Delegates office was hired for a fourth job, also on the executive staff. None of the positions were eligible for appointment.

Ethics investigators, who took the county to court in June to ensure access to personnel files, have reviewed more than 150 job applications and Sigma-4 employment tests used to rank job candidates.

In a typical hiring procedure, a list of the five top-scoring candidates on the Sigma-4 test is certified by the county personnel officer and sent to department heads, who make the final selection. The investigation aims to determine if administration officials followed that procedure or skirted the rules to hire less qualified candidates.

That phase of the investigation has apparently ended. "We haven't had any additional requests for information on those cases for about a week," said E. Hilton Wade, Anne Arundel's personnel officer.

In recent weeks, however, the probe has expanded.

Now, ethics investigators are examing complaints filed by a clerical worker passed over three times for promotions. Investigators have also asked for the employment files of a county mechanic and an employee hired by Robert R. Neall, Gary's predecessor.

Pub Date: 8/21/96

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