Howard Co. officials, too, walk an ethics tightrope


January 18, 1998|By Norris West

LARRY YOUNG'S apparent use of legislative influence to fill his pockets at the expense of Coppin State College had all the markings of a senatorial shakedown.

Coppin paid Mr. Young in 1996 to represent the school in the state legislature, hoping his support would bring it a strong physician assistant program, establish a center for urban minority studies, locate a police training academy there and arrange a scholarship program.

The report of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics pointed out that representing Coppin on these matters is part of Mr. Young's normal legislative duties, if he believed in those causes.

On top of that, Mr. Young did not deliver. Coppin President Calvin W. Burnett told the committee no progress had been made that year on any of the initiatives.

Mr. Young was penalized because he failed to disclose this and other conflicts of interest, improperly accepted gifts and committed other violations.

He was out for Larry Young, and doesn't deserve support from his constituents. But I'll leave that alone for now.

Mr. Young is relevant to Howard County because of this whole issue of conflict of interest and the appearance of conflict.

No political official in Howard has been proven to demonstrate such blatant disregard for ethics laws, but some have danced the tightrope of conflict.

Schrader's vote

The most recent example is Republican Councilman Dennis R. Schrader. He voted to restructure a loan for the Savage Mill Limited Partnership. It is managed by the co-chairman of the committee running Mr. Schrader's campaign for county executive.

An article published in the Howard County Times reported that Mr. Schrader voted for the loan, approved unanimously by the County Council, without disclosing his political relationship with the partnership's manager, Steven Adler.

To be sure, the county solicitor says Mr. Schrader did not violate ethics law. He did not personally enrich himself when he cast his vote, a clear difference from Mr. Young's dealings.

Mr. Adler did not pay Mr. Schrader a salary or buy him an expensive car, so the councilman's actions must be put in context.

What Mr. Schrader is receiving is Mr. Adler's valuable time to help him win election to the county's highest office. There is no paper trail to show quid pro quo, that Mr. Schrader traded his vote for the manager's expertise. But the arrangement smells like rotten rockfish.

Mr. Schrader should have at least disclosed the relationship before voting, and he should have considered not voting.

Feaga's land deal

He failed to learn from the missteps of Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga and Councilman C. Vernon Gray, who walked the tightrope before him, that these appearances may not be conflicts but look that way to the public.

This was a lesson Mr. Feaga finally has learned. He claimed in early 1996 he was unaware that two developers who brought a controversial land-use matter before his zoning board were the same developers that had an option to buy his family's farm in West Friendship.

With his vote, the controversial land-use project won zoning board approval, 3-2.

At the time he defended his action by saying, "I've always put a very large amount of distance between sitting in that [council] chair and any personal gain I might have." Not enough distance to avoid the appearance of conflict, however.

He finally began recusing himself from votes when the council decided to change the permit allocation process -- after he nearly stumbled again.

Mr. Gray got himself into unnecessary hot water by not reporting money he had received from contributors to his campaign for the National Association of Counties. One of his donors was Comcast Cable, which had rate-setting legislation before the council at the time.

This was a gray area; the county had never dealt with contributions for nonpolitical campaigns before. To his credit, Mr. Gray sought opinions from county and state lawyers before he accepted funds.

Although he was not required to report contributions, however, he should have.

Councilman Darrel E. Drown has not encountered appearance-of-conflict problems, but he must walk a straight line, too. Mr. Drown was required by charter to leave his job as the school system's budget officer when he was elected, so he went into private business. Starting from scratch, he has built a successful business.

Did clients flock to him because of his financial wizardry? Or did clients choose him, expecting that a powerful councilman could do more than manage their 401(k) plans?

Our officials need to remember to disclose early and often to avoid conflicts or appearances of them. Failure to report when personal affairs cross paths with public roles feeds the cynicism that people have about their elected officials and clouds the line between conflicts and appearances.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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