Lawsuit filed in ethics firings

Commissioners, attorney accused of wrongful action

`Needed to be done,' Minnich says

Carroll County

December 10, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Two former members of the Carroll ethics commission have sued the county commissioners, saying that the commissioners wrongfully fired them as part of a conspiracy to suppress an investigation of Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge.

The lawsuit, which asks for $80 million in damages, also charges that the commissioners slandered and inflicted emotional distress on James F.W. Talley and Suzanne Primoff, who along with the late John Harner made up the ethics committee that was disbanded by the commissioners in February. The lawsuit, filed Dec. 3 in county Circuit Court, also names County Attorney Kimberly Millender as a defendant

"The real issue here is that we want to clear Reverend Talley's name, we want to clear my name and, especially, we want to clear John Harner's name," Primoff said yesterday. "We want to get the truth out, and this is the only avenue we know to do that."

The lawsuit could revive an issue that raged through last winter and spring after the commissioners disbanded the ethics commission. The panel had been investigating Gouge for more than a year, and Talley said at the time that he believed the commissioners fired him and his colleagues in an effort to end the investigation. Talley also said the panel members were contemplating legal action, but none of the three commented on the situation after they were fired. Harner died in October.

Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said yesterday that he was not surprised the lawsuit was filed.

"We knew when we took action that it would probably result in the lawsuit," he said. "We didn't go into it with any naivete about that at all. We still felt that it was something that needed to be done to restore credibility in the processes."

Minnich said he believes that the commissioners' actions would stand up well in court.

"If it goes to trial, I think our reasons for doing it will be more apparent," he said. "We'll just have to play out the process now."

Gouge was traveling to a conference in Missouri yesterday and did not return calls seeking comment. Attempts to reach Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr. and Millender for comment yesterday were not successful.

Talley and Primoff's lawsuit says the commissioners dismissed them and Harner without cause. It says the defendants also slandered Talley and Primoff through a letter from Millender. This combination of actions inflicted mental anguish on Talley and Primoff, according to the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of the former ethics commission members by Beltsville attorney Donald B.W. Messenger.

The lawsuit frequently makes reference to Millender's letter, dated Dec. 3 last year, which accused the ethics commission members of, "misuse of office, failure to comply with the Ethics Code, and incompetence."

Millender's letter went on to say that panel members seemed to show bias by brushing aside ethics complaints against their political allies while conducting lengthy investigations of political foes. The letter asked Talley, Primoff and Harner to resign, which they refused to do. The commissioners disbanded the ethics commission in February. In July, they revived the panel with six new members and a new guiding code.

The lawsuit further alleges that one of the commissioners showed malice by referring to the spouse of an ethics commission member as a "rich Jew." Primoff's husband, Ed, is of Jewish descent and is a semiretired commercial lender who lives on a 208-acre farm in Woodbine and owns two private planes and houses in West Palm Beach, Fla., and in the San Francisco area. The lawsuit does not name which commissioner allegedly made the remark or give any other details.

The lawsuit also makes reference to a political organization, Responsible Republicans of Carroll County. During last year's commissioner campaign, that organization criticized Ed Primoff, who lost in the Republican primary, while supporting Gouge and the other eventual winners, Jones and Minnich.

The lawsuit notes the organization's efforts as evidence that Gouge, Jones and Minnich conspired to defame the ethics commission members and those close to them. The commissioners have always said they had no connection to the Responsible Republicans of Carroll County group.

Ed Primoff said yesterday that he could not comment on the specific charges in the suit.

"There's only one concern here, and that's clearing these people's names," he said. "Sometimes, a lawsuit is the only way you can do that."

The conflict between the commissioners and the ethics panel began the day after the commissioners took office last December.

In one of their first actions, Minnich and Jones voted to ask all three members of the ethics panel to resign. Talley replied that he and his colleagues would not resign, and said his panel's reputation had never been questioned before the Gouge investigation began.

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