Sheriff under ethics scrutiny

Testimony: Her testimony on behalf of a Baltimore County liquor license applicant didn't mention brother's connection to it.

August 07, 2002|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Officials at an otherwise mundane Baltimore County liquor board hearing were surprised when Baltimore County Sheriff Anne K. Strasdauskas testified, in uniform, on behalf of a private restaurant corporation seeking a liquor license.

They would later become outraged by something the sheriff failed to tell them - that one of the corporation's restaurants in Bel Air is owned by her brother.

Those officials and ethics experts called Strasdauskas' testimony improper and unethical.

"I was surprised to see the sheriff show up in uniform to testify," Philip R. Leyhe Jr., chairman of the three-member board, said this week. "In 27 years of my working on the liquor board, I have never seen a witness come before us dressed in their official uniform."

Jeffrey Ian Ross, assistant professor at the University of Baltimore's criminal justice department, called the sheriff's appearance in January "highly unethical."

"Under full disclosure, as a sworn officer, she should not have been lobbying for a business entity in which her brother has ownership," said Ross. Officials were informed recently by The Sun of the potential conflict involving Strasdauskas' testimony.

Seeking re-election to a second term, Strasdauskas said in written responses to questions that she did nothing wrong testifying on behalf of the York Road Restaurant Corp. at the liquor board and was encouraging a "family-oriented" restaurant.

"My comments were my own personal opinion and I am the sheriff of Baltimore County whether I am in uniform or not," she wrote.

Her brother, Timothy Strasdauskas, owns the popular Silver Spring Mining Co.'s restaurant and bar on business Route 1 in Bel Air in Harford County.

The corporation has refiled its application with the county Liquor Board. A hearing could be held by early next month.

The initial effort by the sheriff and the restaurant chain to get a liquor, wine and beer license was ultimately unsuccessful. In March, the board denied Silver Spring Mining Co.'s expansion to a crowded York Road corridor in Cockeysville that already has dozens of restaurants, many considered family-oriented.

`We saw nothing wrong'

Gary D. Rissling, head of the restaurant group, said that Strasdauskas testified, in part, because her brother owns one of the restaurants. The other Silver Spring Mining Co. eatery is on Belair Road in Perry Hall and draws large crowds.

"We saw nothing wrong in what she did," said Rissling, a retired professional hockey player. "She did it because of her brother."

If nothing else, one ethics specialist said, the sheriff testifying before the liquor board in uniform for a corporation that counts her brother as a major player was clearly wrong.

"It was an inappropriate use of the government's power for private business," said Alexander Kealey, professor emeritus of ethics and philosophy at Towson University.

Kealey, who taught at Towson for 15 years and who continues teaching in California, said that such a high-profile appearance by Strasdauskas "was an abuse of power.

"With her official title and in her uniform, she is the department," said Kealey. "Her actions had nothing to do with the duties of the sheriff."

As for not mentioning her close relationship with the restaurant owner, "there are tremendous consequences to that," he said.

"She is a public official, and omissions like the one she made embarrass her entire department. ... She should be held accountable."

Charles E. Brooks, an attorney representing opponents of a Silver Spring Mining Co. expansion into Cockeysville, said he was stunned to see the sheriff testify in uniform for the liquor license applicant.

"The sheriff in uniform threw the entire weight and authority of her office behind her appearance at the liquor board," said Brooks, a veteran Towson lawyer. "I've never seen anything like it."

Suzanne S. Fox, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, said that she is precluded by law from commenting on any case or incident. But, she said, the agency will investigate any suspicious conduct brought to its attention.

The Sheriff's Department is a state agency but funded by Baltimore County. The department's three primary missions are security for the Towson courthouse, serving legal papers and transportation of prisoners. The agency has a $3.5 million annual budget; the sheriff earns more than $70,000 annually.

Elected in 1998

Strasdauskas, an East Baltimore native, is a former county detention center guard and county deputy. She was elected in 1998, beating Sheriff Norman M. Pepersack Jr. by 4,000 votes.

In the September primary election, the sheriff faces a challenge from Charles D. Cuddy, a former courthouse security officer, and R. Jay Fisher, a Baltimore City police lieutenant and former bodyguard to then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer.

If Strasdauskas wins in that election, she could possibly face Pepersack, who is running as a Republican, in the November general election. Two other Republicans have also filed - Joseph P. Callendar, a former Baltimore City schools police officer, and Russell D. Badolato, an officer in the Maryland Department of General Services.

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