Gouge's critics remain vocal

Official trying to move on after cleared of allegations

New complaint may be filed

Carroll County

July 06, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The backhoe operator was laying asphalt along Hampstead's Main Street when a woman stormed toward him and complained that he was blocking her store, that he was interfering in the unveiling of a line of Christmas gifts.

The contractor said he had permission to work on the street. The shopkeeper said he had given her no notice, and asked him to leave.

And, she added, she would tell her mother, who happens to be a Carroll County commissioner, how he had treated her.

A year and a half later, that brief but bitter argument is still being talked about. It ignited a political brushfire that has involved two boards of Carroll commissioners, the state prosecutor and a passel of county officials.

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, the focus of the controversy, says the period has been the most difficult in her 24-year political career. With most of the story apparently now on the table in the form of a prosecutor's report that became public last week, she says she hopes to move on.

But can she?

Although State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli cleared Gouge of criminal wrongdoing, he said her actions had the appearance of impropriety. Some of Gouge's critics say that conclusion means she hasn't yet faced appropriate justice.

Charles Stambaugh, the contractor who made the initial allegations against Gouge after the argument with her daughter, said he's so disgusted with what's happened that he plans to file another complaint with the county's new ethics commission, set to be appointed as soon as this week. "The investigation clearly reveals both conflict of interest and misconduct by Commissioner Gouge," Stambaugh said in a written statement.

Stambaugh also criticized Gouge and fellow commissioners Perry L. Jones Jr. and Dean L. Minnich for disbanding the old ethics panel in February, before it concluded its investigation of the ethics allegations. The chairman of that panel, James F.W. Talley, declined to comment last week on Montanarelli's report. But he said he might soon break his five-month silence on the Gouge matter.

Others go further in criticizing the commissioner.

"In my mind, this is a person that doesn't deserve the public trust," said Harvey Tegeler, a longtime political activist from Taneytown who ran unsuccessfully for commissioner in 1998 and who serves as alternate on the county's Board of Zoning Appeals. "I think that's something that needs to be on people's minds during the next election."

In an interview last week, Gouge said the matter should be considered resolved because the issues have been fully aired. She acknowledged, however, that critics remain.

"That type of person, they'll never be satisfied," she said. "But everything is there to be read now, and that should be it. I feel it's over."

Gouge, a Republican, could be considered the dean of county politics. She is serving her fourth term as a commissioner. Before that she served as mayor and as a councilwoman in Hampstead.

The narrative of events surrounding allegations of ethical misconduct by Gouge began to emerge last year through scattered accusations, interviews and announcements of investigations. But much of it remained unclear until Montanarelli released his report last week.

That report, combined with interviews, letters and documents released during the past year, provides the most complete version of the story available so far:

The events actually began in spring 2001, with haggling over the price of a sewer extension Stambaugh was to install at Jill's Jams and Jellies, the business owned by Gouge's daughter, Jill Gebhart.

Gouge asked Wayne Lewns, then a county public works official, to talk to Stambaugh about reducing the price of the county-ordered sewer extension by $3,500, Lewns would later tell the state prosecutor's office. Stambaugh's price adjuster refused that request but ultimately agreed to reduce Gebhart's bill from $9,490 to $8,490.

Lewns told county Public Works Director Doug Myers that both Gouge and Gebhart had called him, Myers later said. Myers talked with Stambaugh's adjuster on Gebhart's behalf, he said, adding that he would have done the same for any citizen, though no one else had ever asked for such help.

Gouge mentioned to Myers that Stambaugh's initial price seemed high, she later said, adding that she didn't remember talking to Lewns about the issue.

Montanarelli concluded that Gouge never coerced or threatened anyone regarding the price, but wrote, "She should not have involved herself in any manner concerning the extension."

Questions about the price change might never have become public if not for the events of Dec. 18, 2001, when Stambaugh showed up outside Gebhart's store to complete his work on the extension.

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