Carroll commissioner questioned by prosecutors about OK'ing overtime for worker she gave loan

March 14, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Carroll Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge says the state prosecutor's office has questioned her about her approval of hundreds of hours of overtime pay for a county employee who had accepted a personal loan from her.

A New Windsor man's questions about the overtime payments and the loan were submitted to county officials, who forwarded them to State Prosecutor Stephen Montanerelli's office, documents obtained by The Sun show. Gouge said yesterday that investigators from the state prosecutor's office asked her about the matter, but she said she showed them documentation that supported her assertions that she had done nothing wrong.

Montanarelli said yesterday that he has received complaints forwarded by Carroll officials and that one had become part of a criminal investigation of Gouge undertaken by his office. But he declined to describe the complaints.

Steve Powell, chief of staff for Carroll County government, has said that he passed two complaints on to Montanarelli's office after the commissioners suspended the county ethics commission in December. He has declined to reveal specifics of the complaints.

In a Jan. 13 letter obtained by The Sun, David Jones, a member of the county's Republican state central committee, asked the Carroll ethics commission to review Gouge's loan and the employee's overtime records. Powell responded in a Jan. 28 letter, "Mr. Montanarelli has assured the county that he will address issues presented and offer his findings."

Gouge said yesterday that she gave a personal loan of $1,100 to a secretary in county government and later authorized overtime for the same secretary. But the secretary repaid the loan in April 2000, months before the overtime was authorized, Gouge said. She accused her detractors of misrepresenting a personal matter and using it as a political weapon.

"It was a private situation, and it's horrible that it's been drug into all of this," Gouge said. "I couldn't believe it when [investigators] first asked me about it. ... I was shocked."

Gouge first faced complaints about unethical behavior early last year, when the county ethics commission began investigating allegations that she interfered in a dispute between her daughter and a county-hired contractor. The commission investigated the possibility that Gouge influenced the contractor to lower the price of a sewer extension performed at her daughter's business in Hampstead. Commission Chairman James F.W. Talley later said Gouge had ordered a county attorney to seize privileged ethics commission documents related to the investigation.

In early December, fellow Commissioners Dean L. Minnich and Perry L. Jones Jr. asked for resignations from Talley and his colleagues, John Harner and Sue Primoff, noting bias, incompetence and misuse of office. The commissioners suspended the panel and later disbanded it in favor of a single ethics officer.

Talley said Minnich and Jones eliminated the ethics panel to thwart its investigation of Gouge, which had not produced any formal charges.

In December, Montanarelli said that his office was looking into alleged ethics allegations against Gouge. That investigation continues, though Montanarelli will not reveal details.

The commissioners announced after suspending the ethics panel that until they appointed a replacement, requests for ethics investigations would be forwarded to Montanarelli.

After Jones received a reply from Powell, he wrote back to ask why a complaint to the county ethics commission would be forwarded to the state prosecutor. "I am concerned ... that this action by the Commissioners is an attempt to interfere with the legal process as it relates to ethics complaints by county citizens," Jones wrote.

Montanarelli said his office should not be considered a substitute for the county ethics commission and should only receive ethics complaints that might lead to criminal charges.

"If a complaint goes to the local board and it involves possible criminal sanctions, then we might take it over," Montanarelli said. "But otherwise, we would be usurping the authority of local ethics boards, and we don't want to do that. If I do that for Carroll County, then maybe all the other counties start expecting us to do the same thing."

Montanarelli said his office has no jurisdiction over several issues in complaints forwarded by Powell and would return them to the new county ethics officer, Richard J. Simmons.

The allegations of improper overtime payments are the first specifics to emerge from Montanarelli's investigation of Gouge in three months. In December, one county employee and a former employee said state investigators had questioned them about Gouge's alleged attempts to lower the price for the sewer extension at her daughter's business.

The four-term Republican commissioner said she made the loan to the employee in 1999 and was repaid in April 2000. County records show the employee logged almost 300 hours of overtime between August 2000 and September 2001 and that Gouge approved those hours.

Employees with similar jobs worked far fewer overtime hours during the period. Gouge said the employee took on many added responsibilities and earned the extra money.

Gouge said she provided Montanarelli's office with records verifying that the loan and overtime payments did not overlap.

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