Ethics panel finds official to be at fault

Planning board's Dannelly, wife had stake in road project

`Clear' conflict, report says

Couple's property part of proposal to relocate Ridge Road

January 28, 2000|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

Calling it a "clear" conflict of interest, the Carroll County Ethics Commission announced yesterday that a planning commission member broke county ethics laws by failing to disclose that a road project he championed would cross property he owns.

Grant S. Dannelly, who has served on the planning commission since 1995, and his wife are one-third owners of a 0.27-acre parcel at the north end of Marriottsville Road No. 2, just south of its intersection with Ridge Road in the Freedom area.

A proposed road project to relocate Ridge Road, connecting it to Marriottsville Road No. 2 farther south, would cross directly through his property.

Without revealing the conflict, Dannelly participated in discussions and voted on a proposal last year to relocate the road through his property, a parcel the county would need to buy if it wants to move the road, according to an opinion released yesterday by the three-member ethics commission.

Under Carroll's ethics laws, county officials are not allowed to participate on behalf of the county in any matter in which they would have a direct financial interest. If asked to act on such an issue, county officials are required to disclose potential conflicts.

"It is the unanimous and unequivocal opinion of the Ethics Commission that Mr. Dannelly has violated the Carroll County Ethics Ordinance. The Ethics Commission recommends that the Board of County Commissioners take such further action as is appropriate," wrote the members, the Rev. James F. W. Talley, Suzanne Primoff and John S. Harner.

Under county law, the Board of County Commissioners could ask the ethics commission to take disciplinary action against Dannelly, including fines up to $500.

The county commissioners, who had asked that the potential conflicted be investigated last year, declined to discuss the opinion yesterday, saying it was a personnel issue.

"We were fully unaware that it was released to the public," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "It should not be discussed with anyone. I'm not sure why it was handed over to the press. There will be no comments from any of the commissioners on this particular issue."

Dannelly, who has continued to serve on the planning commission since the investigation started, could not be reached for comment.

`An oversight'

In earlier interviews, Dannelly has said he never thought to mention he owned the property.

"It was an oversight. It was no different than getting in the car and forgetting [the] driver's license," he said in an interview in September.

But the ethics commission concluded that Dannelly's explanation was not plausible.

"Given the overwhelming evidence the Ethics Commission can only conclude that Mr. Dannelly's subsequent claim of oversight is blatantly inaccurate. The facts clearly demonstrate that Mr. Dannelly's participation in the discussion and vote on the relocation of Ridge Road were done with his knowledge; and that the relocation would have a direct financial impact on Mr. Dannelly," the commission members wrote in their seven-page report.

In reaching its conclusion, the commission reviewed various county documents, including planning commission minutes and audiotapes of meetings and files from departments of the county attorney, planning, and development review. The commission also conducted 16 interviews.

But none of those interviews was with Dannelly.

"Mr. Dannelly declined our offer to review the foregoing material and also declined an interview with the Ethics Commission," the commission wrote.

Among the evidence noted in the opinion is Dannelly's failure to mention the property on his financial disclosure statement, his failure to recuse himself from discussion of and votes on the relocation of Ridge Road, and his insistence during planning meetings that the Ridge Road relocation be included in a comprehensive plan for the neighborhood.

The commission's opinion also provides a history of Dannelly's involvement with the property:

According to county land records, Dannelly and his wife, Beverly, along with two other couples, purchased the property in 1976.

Dannelly has said they had hoped to stop a proposed dense development of single-family homes by purchasing a parcel crucial for access to the development.

In 1977, Dannelly was appointed an alternate member of a citizens' advisory committee for the first Freedom Area Plan. The 1977 plan called for the Ridge Road relocation, among nearly a dozen road improvements.

From 1991 to 1994, Dannelly was involved in "extensive negotiations with Carroll County" when the county sought to purchase the property for the road relocation. Those negotiations included 15 telephone conversations or meetings between county employees regarding the property, according to the commission's research.

At one point, Dannelly "demanded" $12,000 for the property, exceeding its appraised value of $2,625, according to the ethics commission.

Panel points out employees

In drawing its conclusions, the commission also pointed out two county employees who were aware of the conflict but failed to disclose it.

In his testimony before the commission, Steve Horn, director of the planning department and secretary to the planning and zoning commission, acknowledged he was aware of the conflict.

"I would accept the commission's finding," Horn said in an interview yesterday, adding, "It's incumbent on a member of the commission who has the authority to approve matters of public issues and land use to disclose this kind of information."

Assistant County Attorney Isaac Menasche, counsel to the planning commission, was also singled out by the ethics commission for failure to reveal the conflict.

"We find that it was Mr. Menasche's obligation, as counsel, to have revealed that information," the report said. "Had Mr. Menasche done so, this Commission may not have had an Ethics Ordinance violation to process at all."

Menasche declined to comment on the findings.

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