Ethics question put on agenda Panel to consider Ruppersberger's links with MBNA

February 12, 1997|By Ronnie Greene | Ronnie Greene,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County's Ethics Commission is poised to ponder a delicate ethics question involving County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's business ties to a credit card company planning to move to the region.

Ruppersberger owns a Timonium collection agency that does business with MBNA Corp., a Delaware credit card giant that has announced plans to open a regional headquarters in the area.

"My personal view is that this transaction is a good thing for Baltimore County," said Ethics Commission Executive Director Joseph S. Matricciani, echoing others who applaud MBNA Corp.'s planned move and Ruppersberger's efforts to lure it.

At the same time, Matricciani said he intends to raise the issue regarding Ruppersberger's business ties to MBNA during an ethics meeting today. He intends to propose "a couple of alternatives" as to how the commission could proceed.

"It's important that the appearance of propriety be maintained," he said. "I want to be sure there isn't going to be a problem."

Noting the confidentiality of ethics hearings, Matricciani declined to say what he will recommend. And he noted that the five-member board would decide what action -- if any -- to take.

"There is a situation where there has been no ethical breach up to this time," Matricciani said. "And I want to bring them up to date and in effect say, 'I don't think there has been a breach, and if we do this, there won't be. So let's avoid the problem if we can.' "

Meanwhile, County Council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder yesterday asked Ruppersberger directly whether the executive should seek a formal ethics opinion. Ruppersberger replied that one wasn't needed.

The two developments -- at the Ethics Commission and council chairman level -- underline the sensitivity surrounding Ruppersberger's connection to MBNA, the world's second-largest credit card company.

Ruppersberger has won widespread praise for luring MBNA to the area. He also owns Rupp and Associates Inc., whose clients include MBNA.

Bartenfelder said he wasn't personally requesting an ethics review. Still, by asking the question of Ruppersberger, "That let him know I was at least concerned -- if only from a perception standpoint," said the Fullerton Democrat.

"The only thing I asked him was did he feel he needed to seek an ethics opinion," Bartenfelder said.

Ruppersberger replied that no ethics review was required because he disclosed Rupp and Associates Inc. on public disclosure forms.

Michael H. Davis, Ruppersberger's chief spokesman, said the county attorney's office advised the executive "there was no need for an ethics opinion" because of the disclosure.

Bartenfelder, like others laudatory of Ruppersberger's efforts in luring MBNA, said: "If he feels comfortable with that, then I feel comfortable with it."

For Ruppersberger, ethics questions could rise if MBNA builds its regional office in Baltimore County.

In effect, he would serve as top official in a county being asked to approve zoning matters, building permits and other development issues for a company with which he has a business relationship.

Rupp and Associates was created shortly after Ruppersberger won the county executive seat in 1994. But Ruppersberger's ties to MBNA go back to the late 1970s, when he represented the company as a lawyer. His friendship with MBNA executives flourishes today and has been noted as a key reason for the company's planned move.

The 2,500 professional, white-collar jobs and the $39 billion credit-card giant would be the largest private-sector relocation in the Baltimore area in the past 25 years.

In Baltimore County, officials are working to find a suitable site.

"Our focus has been on the north-central corridor -- on Towson north through Hunt Valley and Loveton," said Robert L. Hannon, executive director of the county's Department of Economic Development. "That's the corridor of great interest to MBNA."

It is not improper for Ruppersberger or other officials to maintain outside business interests. Still, the county's Ethics Code says: "An official or employee may not participate in any matter [involving] any business entity in which he has a direct financial interest." It also says, "An official or employee may not hold any other employment relationship which would impair the impartiality or independence of judgment of the official."

Ruppersberger and his spokesman said such restrictions won't apply because county department heads -- not Ruppersberger -- would make final decisions on MBNA development issues.

"We are preparing a memo to be sent to the department heads involved to say that MBNA should be treated like any other client," Davis said. "And that Dutch is going to appoint a team to head up the development process as he al- ways does and that he personally will not be involved."

Several county councilman said this week they anticipate no problems.

"I don't see a problem as long as MBNA is not given any special treatment," said Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat.

Pub Date: 2/12/97

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