Campaign consulting highlights ethics issue

Ruppersberger aide had paid job in election for judges

March 16, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The historic primary defeat last week of a sitting Baltimore County Circuit Court judge was also a blow to the administration of County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

Not only was Ruppersberger an active supporter of Judge Alexander Wright Jr., but the executive's top political aide served as paid campaign consultant in an arrangement that even close associates were unaware of until after the primary.

Wright became the first sitting county judge to lose a campaign since 1938, succumbing to a challenge from District Court Judge Robert N. Dugan in a race marked by racial overtones and charges of dirty tricks.

Appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening in 1998, Wright was seeking election as the county's first black circuit judge. His running mate, Kathleen G. Cox, and Dugan won the primary, ensuring their victories in the November general election.

"I was very upset that Wright lost," said Ruppersberger, who recorded radio spots for the two sitting judges and accompanied them to political events throughout the county. "We worked extremely hard."

Ruppersberger's assistance was free, but advice from Michael H. Davis, one of Ruppersberger's most influential aides, came at a cost.

Davis was paid $6,000 for after-hours work on the Cox and Wright campaign through Grassroots Inc., the consulting company he helps run.

Many elected officials in Baltimore County said they did not know that Davis, who has been active in politics since high school, had a private consulting business in addition to his posts as county executive officer and head of the communications office.

"It's all news to me," said Joseph Bartenfelder, chairman of the County Council.

County and state ethics laws allow outside employment for county employees if the second job poses no conflict of interest.

But the relationships spotlight some thorny ethical issues.

By hiring Davis as a consultant, would judges benefit from increased access to and attention from Ruppersberger, who controls how much money and resources the Circuit Court receives through the county budget? And would Ruppersberger, in turn, capitalize on close ties to the judiciary when controversial land use, zoning and condemnation cases involving the county are heard in Circuit Court?

"It is more than unseemly to create the impression that powerful persons in one branch of the government are instrumental in the successful campaigns of the other branch," said Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland.

`Gut reaction'

"Anyone walking up and down the street is going to have a gut reaction about what appears to be this really cozy political money relationship between the executive and the judiciary," she said.

A former partner with Venable, Baetjer and Howard of Baltimore, Davis, 40, joined Ruppersberger's staff in 1995 after having helped the executive win office.

He says that because he was taking a sizable pay cut (last year he earned $127,103), he told Ruppersberger he wanted to continue as a political consultant to supplement his income. Ruppersberger agreed.

"I like politics," Davis said. "With my kids in private school, [the extra income] has allowed me to do the public service."

Davis said he earned $6,000 in each of the last three Circuit Court races. His partner, former Gilman School history teacher Nick Schloeder, has worked in County Council races in neighboring counties.

Joseph S. Matricciani, executive director of Baltimore County Ethics Commission, said that he has not looked into Davis' situation, but at first blush sees no conflict between the two jobs.

Leaves suggested

Still, a 1998 memorandum by the state ethics commission contains this recommendation: "One way to reduce the potential for problems is to utilize [with employing agency approval] a formal extended leave of absence for paid campaign activities."

Davis acknowledges that his job as an aide to Ruppersberger leaves him vulnerable to potential conflicts. That's why, he said, he has chosen not to do consulting work for County Council members or state legislators with whom he deals regularly.

"In my own mind, I've made that decision," he said.

Richard Burch, a Towson attorney who was chairman of the Wright and Cox campaign, said he was pleased with Davis' advice, even though he didn't like the outcome.

"To the extent that everyone didn't stay on the high road, I find that most regrettable," Burch said.

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