Panel cannot force lawyer to reveal donors' names People who gave to legal defense fund are unknown to Lennon

October 24, 1997|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

The Carroll Ethics Commission cannot compel a Westminster attorney to reveal the names of people who contributed funds to the defense of former planning commission member Robert H. Lennon, an Anne Arundel County judge ruled yesterday.

The money had been raised from donors unknown to Lennon to help pay for his successful court defense against earlier Ethics Commission charges. Lennon's supporters allege the charges were the product of a witch hunt.

The Ethics Commission sought information about the donors and their contributions after Lennon indicated on a financial disclosure form that six contributors unknown to him had helped pay his legal fees.

Only his lawyer, Westminster attorney Richard C. Murray, knew the donors and the amounts, Lennon said on the form.

Towson attorney James R. Chason, representing the ethics panel, called that a "ruse." County law "required [Lennon] to produce the evidence required without question -- both the names and amounts," Chason told Circuit Judge Eugene M. Lerner yesterday. "He put his hands over his eyes and, with a more or less straight face, said he was ignorant."

Failure to compel Lennon and his attorney to reveal the names and amounts would jeopardize the disclosure requirements of every ethics commission in the state, Chason argued. Public officials would be allowed to raise funds for any purpose and shield themselves from disclosure by hiding behind a third-party agreement, he said.

Lerner disagreed. He dismissed the Ethics Commission's complaint on three grounds. First, the Carroll County Ethics Commission had no legal standing to bring the action, Lerner said.

Second, the commission had given Lennon a choice to reveal the names or appear before it, Lerner said. Lennon complied, the judge said, by appearing before the commission on a specified date.

Finally, because Lennon didn't know the names of the donors and the amounts given, he could not be compelled to reveal them, Lerner said.

The case was heard in Anne Arundel County because the parties were too well known in Carroll.

Chason said it would be up to the Ethics Commission to decide whether to appeal the case. Members have 30 days to do so.

Lennon was subdued but pleased.

"Once again, I am very gratified that there's a court system that provides relief from wrongful government actions," he said. "I have no idea who made the contributions, but I certainly appreciate those other Carroll County citizens who have been willing to oppose what was subsequently found to be the illegal activity of the County Commissioners."

Commissioners W. Benjamin Brown and Richard T. Yates fired Lennon as a member of the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission on July 15, 1996, saying he had violated the county ethics law.

The Ethics Commission had accused Lennon, a Westminster attorney, of a conflict of interest because he represented owners of some rural lots, although those lots are exempt from the county subdivision process.

Lennon sued, saying he had not broken the law. He said the firing was politically motivated because many of his votes on the planning panel had gone against the slow-growth philosophies of Brown and Yates.

Commissioner Donald I. Dell agreed, accusing Brown and Yates of using the Ethics Commission to conduct a "witch hunt" to get rid of Lennon.

After hearing preliminary arguments Aug. 26, 1996, Lerner restored Lennon to the planning commission on a temporary basis. He made that restoration permanent in December. The Ethics Commission has appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, which is expected to rule within three to six weeks.

Pub Date: 10/24/97

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