Decision expected on Gary inquiry Ethics panel to review tonight evidence on four appointments

August 29, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel's Ethics Commission is concluding an investigation into whether County Executive John G. Gary illegally rewarded former campaign workers and State House staff with government jobs after his 1994 election.

The commission will convene behind closed doors tonight to decide whether the 10-week investigation, a prolonged frustration for the county's Republican administration, has uncovered enough evidence to justify a court-style hearing.

The administration has dismissed the confidential inquiry as political ax-grinding by the panel's new executive director, Betsy K. Dawson, whom Gary did not endorse for the post. The probe is examining whether Gary ignored civil service rules to place three former campaign workers and a longtime State House aide in merit jobs.

"I've got a feeling it will fall short of Watergate," said County Attorney Philip F. Scheibe. "The whole thing is a mystery."

Dawson, an attorney who worked for Anne Arundel's Office of Law from 1977 to 1982, said: "If I have a complaint, I'm going to investigate it. I won't be put off."

At the heart of the probe is a timeworn political practice. But rewarding loyalty on the campaign trail with government jobs is a form of political patronage that good-government groups say is illegal.

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 could face dismissal, 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 Common Cause of Maryland, a watchdog group. "If they find that the county executive has violated the civil service procedure, it would constitute an abuse of office."

The investigation is a major step for Anne Arundel's Ethics Commission, created by county voters in 1992 to enforce conflict-of-interest laws. The panel has been criticized as a toothless watchdog more interested in its own budget than ensuring good government.

Last year, the commission issued five opinions and no censures. Dawson's predecessor, James Jones, resigned in October, citing administration interference. The commission was without a director for eight months.

Gary won the county's top job after 12 years in the House of Delegates. Waging a campaign to reform Anne Arundel's personnel system, Gary has made his share of enemies among the county's 3,500 merit employees.

In June, Dawson started investigating the Office of Personnel after receiving a confidential complaint. The office has been at the heart of Anne Arundel politics for months as the engine behind the administration's effort to reform pay and pension policy.

Dawson has been criticized within the administration for allegedly turning a vendetta into an investigation. Gary favored retired Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Warren B. Duckett Jr. for Dawson's $36,517-a-year job. The commission picked Dawson in May from 70 applicants.

The administration has characterized her investigation, which has examined more than 150 job applications, as retribution for its lack of support.

The inquiry is examining whether Gary appointed four political loyalists to merit jobs instead of following civil service procedures.

Dawson took the county to court in June seeking personnel files for the jobs in question. The county personnel officer certifies the five top-scoring applicants for jobs; department heads make the final selection after interviews.

The question Dawson will present to the commission tonight is whether county officials followed the regular procedure. Said one former county employee familiar with the Gary administration's hiring policies: "They have ways of making their choices one of the top five."

"It's a very tough thing for anybody to prove," Povich said. "Civil service hiring does allow for some discretion."

Those who filled the positions are:

Grace Bonney, who worked for Gary's State House office for 12 years. She served as his 1994 campaign treasurer and donated money to his campaign. Bonney filled the legislative liaison position, Gary's chief link to the General Assembly.

Nathaniel E. Parrott, an employee in Gary's 1994 campaign and contributor. Parrott was hired as an assistant claims adjuster in the county General Services division.

Nancy Terry, who filled a position working directly for Gary after serving on his campaign staff. She also contributed to Gary's campaign. She now reports to Gary's wife, Ruthanne, who runs the county's community liaison office, part of the executive staff.

Carol Moon, who was a receptionist for -- and contributor to -- Gary's campaign. Moon filled the same job in Gary's executive office. She has left the county for reasons unrelated to the investigation.

Gary has refused to comment. But Scheibe has not minced words in dismissing the allegations.

"She [Dawson] is heading up a blind alley," he said.

Pub Date: 8/29/96

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