Sheriff to face ethics probe

Liquor board testimony of Balto. Co. official eyed

Brother's role may create conflict

Political opponents decry alleged misuse of position

August 08, 2002|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Ethics Commission will investigate Baltimore County Sheriff Anne K. Strasdauskas' testimony to the county liquor board, in which she supported a corporation's application without disclosing that her brother owns one of its restaurants.

Susanne S. Fox, executive director of the commission, said yesterday that she will refer the case to the group's enforcement attorney in Annapolis.

Fox's action came after an article in The Sun on Wednesday detailed the conduct of the sheriff, who testified before the liquor board in uniform on behalf of York Road Restaurant Corp. in January. During that appearance before the three-member panel in Towson, the sheriff did not disclose that one of the corporation's restaurants in Bel Air, the Silver Spring Mining Co., is owned by Timothy Strasdauskas.

Until informed this week by a reporter, liquor board members were unaware he owned the restaurant, which created a potential conflict of interest for the sheriff. A board member and one of the sheriff's political opponents were also upset that she testified in uniform.

"The fact that I am forwarding the newspaper account of that case to our enforcement attorney is all that I can say publicly," Fox said. The ethics commission's next meeting is Aug. 15.

If the sheriff were found in violation of ethics rules, the commission could levy a fine, issue other recommendations or refer the case to a state's attorney for criminal prosecution.

Strasdauskas, who has defended her liquor board testimony as "my own personal opinion," had no comment yesterday. She earns $70,000 a year and oversees a $3.5 million annual budget and more than 100 employees, including 62 sworn deputies and 40 security and administrative workers.

Several candidates running for county sheriff were critical of the use of her public position.

"The sheriff has brought disgrace and discredit to the office," said R. Jay Fisher, a Baltimore police lieutenant opposing Strasdauskas in the Democratic primary next month. "I am appalled at her obvious abuse of power and the complete disregard of the voters she serves."

Republican Norman M. Pepersack Jr., the former sheriff who was defeated by Strasdauskas and is running again, said her appearance before the liquor board "points to her inability to manage, understand the ethics of the office and just to do the right thing."

Said Charles D. Cuddy, another Democratic candidate: "By now, nothing surprises me about the current sheriff. It's clear her official demeanor is one of arrogance ... that she can do anything that she wants to do."

Russell D. Badolato, a Republican running for sheriff, said, "Every sworn officer knows that you just don't wear your uniform to a place like a courtroom unless you're there in an official capacity. Looks to me like an ethics violation in the sheriff's case."

Another Republican candidate, Joseph P. Callendar, could not be reached for comment.

Officials and ethics experts have described Strasdauskas' conduct before the liquor board as improper.

Jeffrey Ian Ross, an assistant professor in the University of Baltimore's criminal justice department, called the sheriff's appearance "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," Ross said.

Alexander Kealey, professor emeritus of ethics and philosophy at Towson University, called Strasdauskas' action "an inappropriate use of the government's power for private business. ... Her actions had nothing to do with the duties of the sheriff."

Philip R. Leyhe Jr., liquor board chairman, said the sheriff's appearance in uniform upset him. He said no other witness had appeared in uniform in his 27 years on the panel.

The restaurant chain's initial effort to get a liquor, wine and beer license was unsuccessful. In March, the board denied Silver Spring Mining Co.'s expansion to Cockeysville. The corporation has refiled its application with the board, and a hearing could be held by early next month.

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