The Carroll commissioners' request for resignations from all three members of the county ethics commission is an attempt to thwart an investigation of potentially "serious ethical violations" by a county commissioner, according to a letter from an attorney for the ethics panel.
The letter alleges that a member of the county attorney's office, acting on orders from an unnamed commissioner, improperly seized files belonging to the ethics commission, which has been investigating Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge for the past year.
The state prosecutor's office has also launched inquiries regarding alleged ethics violations by Gouge in recent weeks.
The "current effort to terminate the members of the Commission ... appears to be politically motivated and largely designed to prevent the investigation by the commission of what could be serious ethical violations by one of the commissioners and a member of [the county attorney's] office," reads the letter, dated Thursday and made available yesterday.
Willing to go to court
The letter does not specify which commissioner might have violated county ethics guidelines. But the missing files were related to the investigation of Gouge, ethics Chairman James F.W. Talley said in an interview yesterday. Ethics panel members are willing to go to court to defend their right to continue investigating Gouge, Talley said.
Gouge said she had no comment on the letter, adding that she and fellow commissioners Dean L. Minnich and Perry L. Jones Jr. will discuss a response next week.
Minnich said the letter did not change his opinion that the ethics panel should be overhauled. "To my knowledge, that is absolutely false," he said of the letter's charges about the seizure of ethics commission papers.
Jones could not be reached for comment yesterday. County Attorney Kimberly A. Millender declined to comment.
The day after they took office last week, Minnich and Jones asked members of the ethics commission to resign, saying the ethics panel had lost the public's trust. Gouge recused herself from the vote because she had been investigated by the commission.
Jones and Minnich have said they did not ask for the resignations to protect Gouge from further investigation, an assertion Minnich reiterated yesterday.
The county investigation of Gouge began after contractor Charles Stambaugh complained to the ethics commission about an argument he had with Jill Gebhart, the commissioner's daughter, in December last year. Stambaugh accused Gebhart of using her mother's name to try to intimidate him.
The investigation produced no charges related to the argument between Stambaugh and Gebhart but unearthed other potential ethics violations, the ethics commission said in a June 24 letter. Those alleged violations included the possibility that Gouge had influenced Stambaugh to reduce by $1,000 the cost of his work at Gebhart's Hampstead business, according to the letter.
County records show that the price was reduced, but Gouge has said she never suggested the change and dismissed the investigation as a groundless attack by her political enemies. County Public Works Director Doug Myers said this week that state investigators had questioned him about the price reduction, but said he didn't remember Gouge ever asking him to request that the cost of Stambaugh's work be reduced.
On Dec. 3, Minnich and Jones approved a letter from Millender demanding that Talley and fellow ethics panelists John Harner and Sue Primoff resign within seven days or be fired Dec. 31.
The letter accused the ethics commission of bias and incompetence but said the panelists could ask for a face-to-face meeting with the commissioners where they could refute those charges. The commissioners also announced plans to increase the ethics panel from three to seven members.
Talley responded that the ethics commissioners would not resign and called the charges groundless. He said no more until releasing the letter to Millender yesterday.
The letter says that the county ethics code offers the commissioners no authority to fire the ethics panelists. It also calls the commissioners' accusations of incompetence "undocumented" and "totally inaccurate" and takes Jones and Minnich to task for rescinding a $10,000 budget allocation that had been approved by the previous commissioners.
Talley said yesterday that the ethics commission needed the money to continue its investigation of Gouge and of the improper seizure of documents.
The letter describes Minnich and Jones' call for resignations as a "misguided effort to prevent further investigation of this matter."
It asks the commissioners to rescind their request for resignations and says that if they do not, the letter should be taken as a request for a meeting.