After a short hearing yesterday, Carroll County Circuit Judge Michael M. Galloway said he will issue a written decision on whether he will let stand a lawsuit accusing the county commissioners of taking malicious action against the previous ethics commission.
The lawsuit, filed in December, claims the county commissioners wrongfully fired ethics commission members James F.W. Talley, Suzanne Primoff and John Harner, who died before the lawsuit was filed. The lawsuit states that the firings were part of a conspiracy to thwart an ethics investigation of Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge.
The county argued yesterday that the lawsuit should be dismissed or that the judge should issue a summary judgment in favor of the county.
The county commissioners acted within their legislative authority when they disbanded the ethics commission, argued Kevin Karpinski, an attorney representing the three county officials and County Attorney Kimberly A. Millender, who also is named in the lawsuit.
Because the commissioners acted within their authority, "motives behind the decision is not at issue in this case," Karpinski said.
"Legislative immunity, like judicial immunity, is absolute in nature," he said.
The lawsuit revived a conflict between the county commissioners and the previous ethics commission that raged for months. A day after taking office in December 2002, Commissioners Dean L. Minnich and Perry L. Jones Jr. voted to demand the resignations of the ethics commission members. Gouge recused herself from the vote.
A letter from Millender to the former ethics commission members stated that the commissioners "have no choice but to immediately suspend all members of [the] ethics commission" because of "misuse of office, failure to comply with the ethics code and incompetence."
Richard F. Boddie, a Virginia lawyer representing Talley and Primoff, frequently mentioned Millender's letter in his arguments yesterday.
The lawsuit accused the commissioners of libeling Talley and Primoff through Millender's letter, and inflicting emotional distress on them.
Writing the letter and disseminating it to the public falls outside of the legislative process and is not protected by governmental immunity, Boddie said. The letter was given to the news media before it was sent to the ethics commission members, he said.
Calling it "malicious," Boddie said "the publication of that letter to the press had no appropriate governmental purpose."
Karpinski said that the letter "simply conveys the concerns expressed by the commissioners in an open meeting."
Disputing the lawsuit's allegation that the former ethics commission members were wrongfully fired, Karpinski said, "There is no employer-employee relationship in this case.
"Ethics commission members are appointed. They are not employees of Carroll County," he said.
But Boddie said that the dispute over the firings concerns "whether or not the termination of the ethics commission members was in fact part of the legislative process."
Donald Messenger, a Beltsville attorney alsorepresenting Talley and Primoff, said he could not think of anything more "egregious" than firing ethics commission members while they were investigating Gouge.
The investigation began after Union Bridge contractor Charles Stambaugh complained to the ethics 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 intimate him.
The investigation did not result in charges stemming from the Stambaugh-Gebhart dispute, but found other potential ethics violations.