Ethics panel decision looms

Commissioners consider firing members of board

Discord follows Gouge probe

Ethics officials defend themselves, vow to fight on

Carroll County

January 12, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

They have been branded incompetent, politically biased and traitorous to their own code. Critics say they ignore bad behavior by their friends while conducting witch hunts against their enemies.

And now, the Carroll County commissioners - who have threatened to fire them if they don't resign - appear poised to make a decision on their fate.

But the three members of the Carroll ethics commission - James F.W. Talley, Suzanne Primoff and John Harner - say they have never pursued anything but the truth. And they promise to do all they can to defend their reputations.

"It hurts to have our reputations trashed like this with all we've tried to do for the county," Talley said in an interview Thursday. "I've been on this stuff for almost six years, and never, never have we had this type of controversy."

Talley, 62, is a Methodist minister who lives in Woodbine and preaches in Upperco. Primoff, 52, is a Woodbine businesswoman who helps plan social events at the White House and is married to Ed Primoff, a property-rights advocate who ran unsuccessfully for county commissioner in the fall. Harner, 79, is a school bus driver and beef cattle farmer from Taneytown.

The three have been in the spotlight since Dec. 3, when newly seated county Commissioners Dean L. Minnich and Perry L. Jones Jr. approved a letter from the county attorney suspending Talley, Primoff and Harner and asking them to quit. Minnich and Jones said the ethics board's reputation was irreparably damaged by their "misuse of office" and the taint of political bias.

Talley responded that he and his colleagues would not resign, and that they resented the smear on their reputations. He further said that Jones and Minnich had called for the resignations to thwart an investigation of alleged ethics violations by Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge.

The boards have exchanged accusatory letters in the weeks since, and last week they met face to face for the first time.

But neither side has budged. And the showdown could heat up even more this week.

In demanding the resignation of the panel members, the commissioners said they would fire them if they did not comply. The commissioners, who are considering disbanding the panel and having a single ethics officer, said they are likely to take up the board's future this week. They are scheduled to meet with the county attorney Tuesday to weigh their legal options.

Ethics panel members are willing to go to court to defend their right to continue investigating Gouge, Talley has said.

Board's record at issue

The stand-off boils down to a drastic difference of opinions on how to interpret the ethics board's record.

In the five years that the current members have served together, the ethics panel has conducted a handful of major investigations. In the first, they found former county planning commission member Grant Dannelly guilty of voting for a zoning change that affected property he owned. In the second, they found then-Commissioner Donald I. Dell innocent of any wrongdoing in helping negotiate the county's purchase of the Lease brothers' property outside of Union Bridge for more than six times its appraised value.

The third investigation - still alive after a year - has focused on various charges against Gouge, who also is under criminal investigation by the state prosecutor's office.

The ethics panel's investigation of Gouge began after contractor Charles Stambaugh complained to the ethics board about an argument he had with Jill Gebhart, the commissioner's daughter, in December 2001. Stambaugh accused Gebhart 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 Gebhart, but it unearthed other potential violations, the ethics panel said in a letter dated June 24. Those alleged violations included the possibility that Gouge had influenced Stambaugh to reduce the fee for his work at Gebhart's business in Hampstead by $1,000, according to the letter. The panel members have since said that Gouge improperly ordered an assistant county attorney to seize confidential ethics board files.

Gouge has called the investigation a groundless political attack.

Talley estimated that the ethics commission, if allowed to continue working, could finish the Gouge investigation in "about two good days."

Other complaints

The formal investigations aren't the only subjects of critics' complaints against the ethics board.

Planning commission member Melvin Baile Jr. said at a meeting last week that the ethics commission conducted a "witch hunt" against him a few years ago based on vague claims about his business interests throughout the county. Baile said that fighting the investigation cost him more than $400, but that it "went away" as soon as he hired former state Del. Joseph M. Getty as his attorney.

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