Gouge's daughter calls ethics probe political

Investigation stemmed from tiff with contractor

August 14, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare and Childs Walker | Mary Gail Hare and Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

An ethics investigation of Carroll Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge conducted this year was a groundless attack by Gouge's political enemies, said the commissioner's daughter in a letter delivered yesterday to local newspapers.

"At this point, I want to kill the rumors and make this issue public," Jill Gebhart, Gouge's daughter, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

The investigation stemmed from a confrontation in December between Gebhart and contractor Charles Stambaugh, who was installing a sewer line from the road to Gebhart's business. The contractor alleges that Gebhart invoked her mother's name in asking him to leave her property and threatened him with revoking his bond on county contracts.

Stambaugh requested action from the county's appointed ethics commission, which then questioned witnesses throughout the winter and spring about Gouge's involvement with her daughter's business, according to Gouge and several county employees who appeared before the commission.

The ethics committee, which maintains a policy of not acknowledging investigations unless it uncovers a violation, has produced no report on the incident. Gebhart says in her letter to The Sun that the investigation into Stambaugh's allegations against her is closed.

The three ethics commission members said in a letter to the county commissioners that they concluded no action was warranted regarding the Gebhart-Stambaugh confrontation.

"There really was no sense to investigating Jill," said Gouge. "She is not a county employee. This was an invasion of her privacy."

But during the investigation, another county commissioner said Gouge had tried to keep Stambaugh's letter from the ethics panel, according to its letter to the commissioners in June. The letter does not name the commissioner.

The commission also has looked into an allegation that Gouge asked the contractor to drop the price for her daughter, the panel's letter says. These matters remain open within the ethics commission files, the letter says.

Gouge contends that all the commissioners, the ethics commission and several county department chiefs received the Stambaugh letter Dec. 26. She said she did not try to influence any price reduction.

"Everybody had the letter at the same time, and I never met Stambaugh or talked to him," Gouge said yesterday.

Gouge and Gebhart have said that the investigation was pushed by Sue Primoff, a member of the ethics panel and wife of Ed Primoff, a longtime Gouge critic who is running for commissioner. Gebhart said Sue Primoff had a conflict of interest in the investigation, though it's unclear if any interviews were conducted after Ed Primoff announced his candidacy in June.

"This is the political powers-to-be coming into the private lives of my family," Gouge said.

Sue Primoff declined to comment yesterday. Stambaugh did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Stambaugh's Inc. was contracted by the county in July 2001 to extend a sewer line at Jill's Jams and Jellies on Main Street in Hampstead. The company performed most of the work during the summer but did not return to patch Gebhart's driveway until late December. The contractor did not notify Gebhart or the State Highway Administration, as he was required to do, of his intent to complete the work, SHA officials said.

Stambaugh wrote in his letter to the ethics panel that Gebhart approached him as he and his crew were beginning work and asked him to move his construction equipment out of her driveway. He refused, and the two began to argue. Gebhart said she was annoyed about the lack of notice and that the work was blocking the entry to her shop at the busiest time of the year.

Stambaugh wrote that Gebhart said, "You're dealing with the wrong person. I'm Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge's daughter." He wrote that Gebhart then threatened him with losing county contracts if he did not move his equipment.

"I never said that," Gebhart said yesterday. "I didn't even know what `pulling a bond' meant. I did tell him that he was working for the county and that I would make sure my mother knew how rudely he treated people."

Stambaugh wrote that he and his crew left the site shortly afterward. In his letter to the ethics panel, Stambaugh said Gebhart had acted improperly by using the prestige of her mother's office to intimidate him.

According to several county officials who were asked to testify, the probe that followed went beyond details of the incident into questions about Gouge's role helping her daughter obtain state small-business loans. Gebhart received a $75,000 loan from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, but her mother did not help her with the process, she said.

"In fact, my mother did not even know the amount of the loan, until the ethics board made it public," Gebhart said.

Several officials in the county economic development office confirmed that Gebhart went through all the usual channels to secure the loan and eventually arranged to borrow the money through the state's small-business development program.

Gebhart said she met all the requirements for opening her business and did not reveal her relationship to Gouge during any meetings with county staff.

Gebhart said she asked for a reduction in the cost of running the sewer line, after getting lower estimates. "I never asked Mom to help me plow through the red tape," Gebhart wrote.

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