Judge limits ethics query

Arundel council head gets order allowing him to avoid questions

Move seen as unusual

Klosterman agrees to limited talk with commission

May 05, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The chairman of the Anne Arundel County Council has obtained a sealed court order to avoid answering questions from the county ethics commission about possible conflicts of interest, sources say.

A Circuit Court judge last week issued a "show cause" order requiring the commission to justify its request to question the chairman, Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., according to sources. The case was filed under "John Doe."

While it is not uncommon for individuals to ask courts to intervene in ethics probes, judges in Maryland rarely do so, said John O'Donnell, executive director of the State Ethics Commission.

The legal maneuvering occurs nearly five months after revelations that Klosterman, a Millersville Democrat, interceded three times with county officials for one of his accounting clients, a major construction firm that does millions of dollars in business with the county.

Two of the instances occurred after the ethics commission warned him in writing to avoid discussions related to the company. Klosterman said in December that his intentions were "honorable" and that he was "looking out for the county."

Yesterday, he said he would be willing to talk to the ethics commission's executive director, Betsy K. Dawson, but not on an open-ended basis. "I'm trying to get her into specifics instead of fishing," he said.

Klosterman referred questions about a court order to his lawyer, former county Councilman Michael T. Gilligan, who declined to comment. Dawson and commission Chairman William J. Howard declined to say whether the commission is investigating Klosterman.

In March, Klosterman said he would meet with Dawson to "get it cleared up." At the time, he said he wanted to wait until after the April 15 income tax filing deadline, when his accounting workload would ease.

But he also expressed frustration that his integrity was being questioned. "I spent 30 years of my life building a reputation around here, and everybody who knows me knows what kind of person I am," he said.

It is not clear whether the commission subpoenaed Klosterman or asked him to submit to questions voluntarily. Whether or not he eventually cooperates, the commission could hold a hearing. If the commission finds he violated the county ethics law, it could reprimand him, order him not to repeat the violation or ask a Circuit Court judge to impose a $1,000 fine.

Klosterman's success in getting the court order appears to be uncommon.

"Usually you don't get much success with that kind of thing," O'Donnell said, adding that most judges will not intervene in a proceeding.

Because the file is sealed, Klosterman's specific argument is unclear. O'Donnell said the judge -- it's not clear which one -- might have sealed the file to preserve Klosterman's confidentiality.

"If the court were to reveal who was at issue and the details of it, arguably that would breach the expected confidentiality of the process," O'Donnell said, speaking generally. "That would be the argument."

Last year, the ethics commission warned Klosterman not to participate in public discussions involving his client, TGMI Contractors of Cockeysville. But two months later, he led two discussions before the County Council that involved TGMI. Less than a month later, he discussed one of TGMI's county contracts in a phone call to the county's chief administrative officer, who told him to "stay out of it."

On Monday, the ethics commission cleared Klosterman on another issue. It said he could continue to listen to county firefighters discuss talks on a new contract, even though his nephew is a firefighter.

The county's ethics law prohibits council members from participating in matters that would benefit relatives, including nephews.

But in an April 24 advisory opinion that Klosterman says he sought, the commission said he did not need to leave the council chamber when firefighters addressed the council during the regular public input period.

However, the commission said he could not participate in any way in impasse hearings between the county and firefighters union -- a step that could occur this month at the council if the two sides do not agree on a contract.

Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican whose husband is a firefighter, has made a point of leaving the room whenever firefighters spoke.

Disturbed by Klosterman's experience, Councilwoman Shirley Murphy, a Pasadena Democrat, plans to introduce legislation that would limit the length of ethics commission investigations. Dawson has suggested one year, but Murphy is leaning toward three weeks.

Murphy said the commission, an independent seven-member body created by voters in 1992, seems to be trying to "discredit" Klosterman. "I don't know how he has handled the stress of it all because he seems to take it all so lightly," she said.

Sun staff writer Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.

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