Owens' opponents claim campaign spot is unethical

Photo with police officer implies support, they say

July 11, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Two potential challengers to Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens are questioning the use of a photograph of the incumbent and a uniformed police sergeant in a campaign ad, saying it violates county ethics laws.

Republican candidates Tom Angelis and Phillip D. Bissett, who each saw the ad last weekend when it was shown for the first time on local cable channels such as ESPN, said they might ask the county's Ethics Commission to investigate the matter.

"We haven't filed an official complaint yet, but we are discussing that possibility," said Bissett, a Mayo resident and former state delegate. "It's incredulous that this administration does not believe accountability is relevant."

County code prohibits the use of title or authority for private gain by an elected official or employee. In the case of the Owens ad, her critics say, the photo of the incumbent with a uniformed police officer may incorrectly imply that all police officers support her.

Neither Owens, a Democrat, nor her husband and campaign manager, David M. Sheehan, could be reached for comment yesterday. But a campaign spokesman dismissed the Republicans' allegations as "silly."

"They should probably worry about each other until the primary election is over instead of worrying about some feel-good ad she has on cable television," said William F. Chaney, the campaign's co-chairman and treasurer.

The flap comes four years after Owens, then a candidate, complained that County Executive John G. Gary improperly included police officers in his campaign literature.

Gary, a Republican whose brochure included a photo of him with several uniformed police officers, was scolded by the Ethics Commission for violating county code.

At the time, Betsy K. Dawson, the commission's executive director, said the opinion was meant to warn administrators that local law prohibits using county employees in political campaigns.

Gary said he never intended to violate ethics laws. He assumed the police officers who posed for the photos were doing so on their own time. They were not.

"The policy has been that you don't use uniformed officers in political ads," Gary said yesterday. "That is the way I understood it when we got our brains beat out over it."

Anne Arundel County Police Sgt. Bret Ballam, who is featured in the Owens ad, said Tuesday that he did not give permission to the campaign to use the photo. But, he said he doesn't mind. Ballam said the photo was taken at a labor contract signing ceremony. Although Ballam is in uniform, he said he was "off the clock."

The Owens campaign defended the decision to use the photo of Ballam in a campaign ad.

"There is a big distinction between the Gary photo and the Owens photo," said Michael F. Gilligan, a Glen Burnie attorney who is co-chairman of the Owens campaign. "It is not a valid issue at all. The Republicans are just trying to get newspaper print because they are doing so miserably."

Dawson, the county's ethics expert, said yesterday that the photograph used in the Owens cable spot differs from the Gary photo because it was not planned or posed. Dawson called the Owens photo "historical" because it was taken to record an important moment in her administration.

"I guess the incumbent can highlight those activities as part of her campaign literature," said Dawson. Although Owens is shown standing next to a police officer, it is not an automatic endorsement, he said.

But Angelis, a Davidsonville resident and Baltimore school teacher, said that the Owens ad artfully uses the image of an administrative procedure, signing a contract, to suggest that the incumbent has the support of the entire Police Department.

No police union has officially endorsed Owens.

Ballam said that he has no regrets about the Owens ad, which will be shown on local cable channels for the next two weeks, according to campaign officials.

"I love the county executive like a member of my family and so anything I can do to help her I would do, no questions asked."

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