Group seeks ethics probe of Owens

She failed to disclose husband's ties, critics say

May 16, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

A government watchdog group called for the Anne Arundel County ethics commission yesterday to determine whether County Executive Janet S. Owens should have disclosed her husband's business ties to a member of an advisory committee for a large redevelopment project near Annapolis.

Common Cause of Maryland charged yesterday that Owens should have disclosed that her husband, Baltimore attorney David M. Sheehan, is a paid legal adviser to T. Conrad Monts, a member of the David Taylor Redevelopment Advisory Committee.

The committee recently voted 15-6 to adopt a redevelopment plan and developers' agreement for the former David Taylor Research Center on the Severn River near Annapolis. Motts voted for the plan, according to the committee chairman.

The county has only an indirect role in the project, which calls for private developers to recast the former Navy base into an office complex. Owens, a Democrat who is raising money for a re-election bid, supports the plan, saying that it will provide jobs and tax revenue to the county.

Some residents, including a few on the committee, fear the project will bring noise and traffic to quiet suburban streets.

An official with Common Cause of Maryland said the group is looking into the relationship between Sheehan and Monts.

"Disclosure laws wouldn't mean very much if they didn't apply to an elected official's family as well," James Browning, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland, said yesterday.

Robert Poor, a member of the David Taylor committee who voted against the redevelopment agreement, said he did not know of the connection until a reporter told him yesterday.

"Of course I think it should have been disclosed," Poor said. "If I had this possible conflict, I would have brought it up at the first meeting."

Owens, through a spokesman, and Sheehan denied any conflict of interest.

"I guess I would have to have someone define for me what kind of conceivable conflict there might be, because I know of none," Sheehan said yesterday.

Asked whether Owens saw any conflict, her spokesman, Matt Diehl, said "absolutely not," adding, "The county executive doesn't know what business interests all the committee members have."

Browning said that his group, which is affiliated with Common Cause, a citizen's lobbying organization that promotes open, honest and accountable government, is investigating to determine if any state or county laws were violated. He says he will request that the county's Ethics Commission do its own investigation, as well.

Ethics Commission Executive Director Betsy K. Dawson said yesterday that the seven members of the commission would determine whether an investigation was needed. As stipulated by county law, Dawson would not say whether an investigation had begun.

Owens submitted her most recent annual financial disclosure statement to Dawson last month. It did not include any mention of her husband's business tie to Monts, records show.

Sheehan said that he is the legal representative for Monts, who is president and chief executive officer of Washington Development Group of Annapolis, on a project with the University of Baltimore to build student housing. Sheehan said he has been working for Monts on the Baltimore job since last year.

Owens appointed Monts, who lives in Stevensville on the Eastern Shore, to serve on the David Taylor Redevelopment Advisory Committee in December 2000, Diehl said.

Sheehan - who is of counsel to the Baltimore law firm of Brown, Diffenderffer and Kearney, and who serves as his wife's campaign manager - said his work with Monts pertains to the student housing project, not the David Taylor project.

Monts could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Bertrand A. Mason, chairman of the David Taylor Redevelopment Advisory Committee, said yesterday that an investigation by the county's ethics commission might put an end to public speculation.

"I hope they do take a look at it," he said. "I will be surprised to find that there is an ethics violation."

The David Taylor committee has been meeting for months to review legal documents, architectural designs and traffic surveys in anticipation of a project by developers Annapolis Partners to build an office complex across the water from the Naval Academy.

At none of those meetings, all of which were open to the public and attended by numerous county staff members, did Monts forcefully express any opinion, Mason said.

"I am not aware of any effort on his part to act in any way that is inappropriate," Mason said.

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