Court upholds ethics panel Attorney violated law while serving on plan commission

'A complete vindication'

Lennon was fired from panel by two commissioners

January 09, 1998|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals reversed a lower court's decision yesterday and found Westminster attorney Robert H. Lennon guilty of violating the Carroll County ethics law while serving as a member of the county planning commission.

The court agreed with the ethics panel's July 1996 memorandum of opinion that Lennon's votes as a member of the planning commission while performing legal work for owners of small lots on agricultural land violated two provisions of the county ethics law.

Based on that finding, County Commissioners W. Benjamin Brown and Richard T. Yates fired Lennon from the planning panel over the objections of County Commissioner Donald I. Dell.

Lennon, who contended he had not violated the county ethics law, sued. A circuit judge agreed with him and restored him to the panel. Lennon has since resigned from the planning commission.

The lower court's decision that Lennon had not violated the law had left county officials in doubt about the validity of the law and its interpretation by the three-member member ethics panel.

The 28-page appeals court ruling removed that doubt, said Towson attorney James R. Chason, who handled the case for the ethics commission.

"The Circuit Court of Special Appeals has in the strongest terms endorsed Carroll County's interpretation of its ethics ordinance," Chason said.

The clarity of the "strongly worded opinion" leaves no doubt as to the validity of the county ethics law and the way it was interpreted by the ethics panel, he said. The opinion may be precedent-setting in that the court published it rather than simply issuing a finding, Chason said. The opinion appears to be a "touchstone" for interpreting the county's ethics law, he said.

The Rev. Leander H. Anske, chairman of the ethics commission, said he had not read the opinion but had been informed by the committee's attorneys "that we are right on target in interpreting ethics for the county."

Lennon said yesterday's decision does not affect "the main issue we were contesting throughout this matter -- the misuse of the ethics commission for political purposes."

The appeals court opinion "merely verifies that the ethics commission had the legal right to reach its conclusions," Lennon said. "I had already stated previously that while I disagreed with those conclusions, I would nonetheless abide by them."

Lennon has contended from the start that Brown and Yates asked the ethics panel to investigate him because his votes as a member of the planning commission often clashed with their slow-growth agenda.

The ethics panel said Lennon violated the law on two counts. It said, first, that he voted as a member of the planning commission to bring water and sewer to the property of one of his clients along with other county residents. Further, his representation of property owners entitled to subdivision of lots not usually subject to the county's subdivision process gave rise "to a reasonable likelihood of an impairment of impartiality," the ethics panel ruled.

Lennon said earlier that he had voted on the water and sewer proposal only after it had been approved by the planning panel months earlier. The appeals court agreed with the ethics panel in saying that that didn't matter. Lennon should have recused himself on the second vote, as he had on the first, the court said.

Yates called yesterday's appeals court finding "a complete vindication of the ethics commission," saying, "I felt all along that they were acting appropriately in applying ethics standards."

Brown, who said he felt that his motives and those of Yates and members of the ethics panel were impugned by Lennon's

charges of political chicanery, said he found solace in yesterday's court ruling, saying it shattered the political "witch hunt" theory that Dell and other Lennon supporters had espoused.

"This whole affair has troubled me more than any other experience in public life," Brown said. The decision of the lower court upholding Lennon had "cast a pall" over the process and "brought into question our own motives" and the motives of former county attorney George A. Lahey and the members of the ethics commission, he said.

Lahey expressed little emotion about the ruling yesterday other than to say, "We did what we thought the law required and pursued a course we thought necessary and in the long run good for the people of Carroll County."

Brown said he did not expect Lennon to say anything in light of yesterday's court opinion. "I am content that he no longer serves as a member of the Planning Commission," Brown said.

"Commissioner Dell continues to call for a review of the ethics ordinance, but he should leave the ordinance alone and look to his own sense of ethics," Brown said.

Lennon, meanwhile, did not retreat from his charge of political misuse of the ethics commission, saying he has "prevailed at every step of the legal process on that issue."

The county did not appeal circuit Judge Eugene M. Lerner's Dec. 10, 1996, decision that the commissioners' actions in firing Lennon were illegal, Lennon said. That opinion remains in "full force and effect," he said.

Pub Date: 1/09/98

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