Ethics panel won't pursue hiring probe Personnel office failed to follow rules, board says

1 of 7 members dissents

Report exonerates Gary administration, but voices concern

November 10, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

With harsh words but no punishment, Anne Arundel's Ethics Commission has ended an investigation into whether County Executive John G. Gary illegally gave former campaign workers and State House staff civil-service jobs.

The commission decided last week not to hold hearings on whether top Gary administration officials broke county hiring rules to reward past political loyalty with merit jobs. But the commission took the unusual step of writing an opinion because "in this case some expression of its concerns are required."

One of the seven commissioners, H. William Gardner, filed a dissenting opinion calling for an official hearing into this allegation: Soon after Gary took office in December 1994, top personnel officials filled four merit jobs with former Gary campaign workers and State House staff without following impartial hiring procedures.

The report, reviewed by The Sun, essentially exonerates the Republican administration after a five-month investigation. But the victory may be a Pyrrhic one.

In the 1 1/2 -page report, six commissioners said "the evidence reveals a consistent failure on the part of the Personnel Office to follow its own procedures in the recruitment and assessment of applicants for county merit positions.

"The overall effect of this inconsistent application of rules and procedures in hiring is to create an appearance of partiality and favoritism in making the decision to hire four applicants who had previously worked in the county executive's campaign office or in his office at the House of Delegates." Four of the six ethics commissioners who concurred in the opinion gave money to Gary's 1994 campaign, including two who do business with Anne Arundel and Gary's campaign committee.

Gardner, who did not give money to Gary's campaign, made his call for hearings in a short, sharp dissenting opinion.

"I believe that the evidence provided through the staff's investigation more than justifies the need for a hearing on a potential ethics investigation," he wrote.

"The commission agreed that personnel procedures were not followed. It found that, in fact, procedures were probably manipulated by the personnel office to insure that certain applicants would have a good chance of being appointed to certain positions. Why stop there?" he wrote.

The ethics complaint was filed last year by Marc Wirig, a former deputy county personnel director, whose position was the only one eliminated in last year's budget. At The Sun's request, Wirig and the Gary administration agreed Friday to allow the confidential ethics report to be made public.

"When a person applies for a job with the government, they should have a real shot based on their qualifications, not on who they know," said Wirig, who volunteered time and gave money to Gary's 1994 campaign.

He added: "It is in everyone's interest to try and get this situation cleaned up. However, I am not too optimistic that any real change will come out of this administration."

None of the jobs filled by three former campaign workers and a longtime State House aide, who also served as Gary's 1994 campaign treasurer, were eligible for political appointments.

The commission spared the Gary administration from what could have been a politically embarrassing ethics interrogation. While far from complimentary, the report was welcomed by an administration bothered by a spate of recent ethical questions.

"I'm pleased with the outcome," said E. Hilton Wade, the county's personnel officer. "I expected there would be an exoneration."

In recent weeks, Gary has been criticized for awarding contracts to friends and political colleagues without written agreements or public bidding.

Last month, Common Cause/Maryland, a leading government watchdog group, derided the makeup of the ethics panel.

Commissioners Kevin G. Keane, A. Newth Morris III, Vice Chairman Norman G. Myers Sr., and Chairman William J. Howard all gave at least $200 to Gary's campaign two years ago. Myers' Odenton printing company also did $22,000 worth of work for Gary's campaign committee and has a $15,000 contract with the county. Gary hired Keane, a former Baltimore County police officer, to conduct an investigation into a county pension bill last year at a cost of $3,558.

"One has to hope that the commission received sufficient evidence to pass this judgment," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland. "And that the members have done so with impartiality."

The commission's opinion was based on an investigation conducted by its executive director, Betsy K. Dawson, detailing the probe that began in earnest in June. Dawson, an attorney who worked in the county's Office of Law from 1977 to 1982, did not present a recommendation to the commission on whether she thought the investigation should proceed.

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