Ethics panel defends role in Gouge case

Commission's lawyer denies improprieties by members in inquiry

`The system is not broken'

County commissioners still seeking resignations, possible board redesign

January 08, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

An attorney for the Carroll ethics commission rebutted charges yesterday that the panel has misused its office, but the two county commissioners who asked the members of the ethics board to resign said they heard nothing to make them reconsider that request.

Attorney James E. Edwards Jr. repeatedly called the three ethics commission members "good people" and argued that their reputations had never been questioned before last year, when they began an investigation of Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge.

Edwards said that by interfering with that investigation, Gouge, not ethics commission members, has been the only person to act inappropriately during the conflict between the two boards.

Commissioners Dean L. Minnich and Perry L. Jones Jr., who approved a Dec. 3 letter from the county attorney asking the ethics commission members to resign, said they weren't persuaded by Edwards' arguments.

The two said they would review written materials submitted by Edwards before reaching decisions about the future of the ethics panel. But they defended their votes to demand the ethics panel members' resignations and to consider redesigning the ethics board.

"A list of facts such as the ones we heard today does not always add up to the truth," Minnich said after the meeting. "I didn't hear anything that would make me consider withdrawing any of the actions we have taken."

Jones said he did not think he and Minnich had acted hastily by calling for the resignations.

"This situation has been going on and on, and I think we just want to get the politics out of the office ... and take care of it once and for all," Jones said during the meeting.

Yesterday's meeting was the first face-to-face encounter between the two boards since Minnich and Jones asked the ethics commission members to resign last month.

The letter calling for those resignations offered ethics committee members an opportunity to meet with the commissioners and answer charges that they had shown bias, violated the county's ethics code and misused their office.

The ethics panel members - Suzanne Primoff, John Harner, and James F. W. Talley, the board chairman - attended yesterday's meeting but did not speak. They sat impassively as Edwards argued their case to Gouge, Minnich and Jones.

Gouge, the subject of the ethics committee investigation and a related criminal investigation by the state prosecutor's office, also did not speak during the meeting. She shook her head when Edwards accused her of improperly asking an assistant county attorney to seize ethics commission documents.

After the meeting, Gouge said she is frustrated that the ethics commission wants to keep investigating her despite having produced no charges against her after a year of interviewing people about her.

"It's very difficult to sit there and know you're being talked about in a negative way," she said. "In my way of thinking, it's been a whole year's time and if they've found nothing, then what are they still looking for? I wish they would say, `This is what you've done wrong, and this is the proof that you've done it.'"

Talley, the ethics commission chairman, said his panel has a right to continue investigating Gouge and said the call for resignations was an attempt to thwart that investigation.

Edwards backed off that claim yesterday, saying Jones and Minnich might have been overwhelmed by information during their initial days in office. The attorney asked them to reconsider their earlier votes.

"We don't believe that in your heart of hearts, you want to impede any investigation," he told Minnich and Jones.

During his 30-minute presentation, Edwards ran through the history of the Gouge investigation but rarely went beyond arguments he had made in a previous letter to the county attorney.

The investigation began after contractor Charles Stambaugh complained to the ethics commission about an argument he had with Jill Gephart, the commissioner's daughter, in December 2001. Stambaugh accused Gephart of using her mother's name to try to intimidate him.

The investigation did not result in charges related to the dispute between Stambaugh and Gephart, but it unearthed other potential violations, the ethics commission said in a letter dated June 24.

Those alleged violations included the possibility that Gouge had influenced Stambaugh to reduce the cost of his work at Gephart's Hampstead business by $1,000, according to the letter. The letter also raised allegations that Gouge had attempted to suppress Stambaugh's initial complaint.

Edwards said the county attorney had produced no substantial proof that the ethics commission members had acted improperly while investigating Gouge.

He said the notion, advanced by critics of the ethics board, that the panel "investigated" Gephart, a private citizen, is false. He said the ethics board tried to interview Gephart as part of its investigation of Gouge.

He also argued that the commissioners should not expand the ethics committee to seven members or disband it in favor of a single ethics officer, possible changes they presented at a public hearing last week.

"The system is not broken," Edwards said.

But Jones and Minnich countered that the public believes the ethics panel is biased and that the perception alone mandates change.

The two said they probably would discuss the proposed changes to the ethics panel next week, although they did not set a time or date for the discussion.

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