More than a year after the Carroll County commissioners disbanded the previous ethics commission because of allegations of misdeeds, two former members are trying to keep their lawsuit against the three county officials from being thrown out of court.
Carroll County Circuit Judge Michael M. Galloway is scheduled to hear arguments tomorrow on the county's motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims that the commissioners wrongfully fired James F.W. Talley, Suzanne Primoff and John Harner, who died before the suit was filed, as part of a conspiracy to thwart an investigation of Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge.
But the county commissioners acted within their legislative authority when they acted against the ethics panel, according to court documents filed by attorneys representing the officials. As such, the commissioners are immune from liability, according to the documents.
"That was a legislative action we took," Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said last week. "I expect that the court will go with the established law that legislative action is protected."
Attempts to reach Gouge and Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr. last week were unsuccessful.
Tomorrow's hearing will renew a conflict that raged for months and started days after the commissioners took office in December 2002. In one of their first votes, Minnich and Jones approved a letter that accused the three-member ethics committee of "misuse of office, failure to comply with the ethics code and incompetence," and demanded that they step down. Gouge recused herself from the vote.
Talley said at the time that the reputations of the ethics panel members had never been questioned before and that Minnich and Jones had called for their resignations to stop a yearlong investigation into allegations that Gouge had committed ethics violations. Attempts to reach Talley last week were unsuccessful.
After a standoff between the commissioners and the embattled ethics commission, the dispute ended when the three county officials abolished the panel in February 2003. The commissioners later revamped the county's ethics code to create a six-member panel.
But the issue was revived in December when Talley and Primoff filed a lawsuit against the commissioners.
Primoff said at the time that a lawsuit was the only way to clear their reputations. She did not return calls seeking comment last week.
The lawsuit laid out a litany of accusations against the commissioners.
It stated that the officials libeled Talley and Primoff through a letter from County Attorney Kimberly A. Millender, who is also named as a defendant.
The letter, which asked for the resignations of all three ethics commission members, alleged political bias by the panel, saying it investigated political foes while ignoring complaints against their allies.
Moreover, the firing was a direct result of the ethics commission's investigation of Gouge and was without cause, according to the lawsuit.
An ethics investigation of Gouge began after Union Bridge contractor Charles Stambaugh complained to the panel about an argument he had with Jill Gebhart, Gouge'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 stemming from the Stambaugh-Gebhart dispute but found other potential violations - including the possibility that Gouge had influenced Stambaugh to reduce the cost of his work at Gebhart's Hampstead business by $1,000.
The state prosecutor's office, which also investigated some of the charges against Gouge, cleared her of criminal wrongdoing.
The lawsuit also alleges that the commissioners' actions inflicted emotional distress on Talley and Primoff. Talley and Primoff are seeking $80 million in damages.
According to court documents filed on behalf of the commissioners, all the claims made by Talley and Primoff are "plainly barred by legislative immunity."