Judge dismisses ethics lawsuit

Commissioners acted within legislative duties in firing 3 panelists

September 16, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

A Carroll County Circuit Court judge has dismissed an $80 million lawsuit filed by former ethics commission members, who had accused the county commissioners of taking malicious action against the ethics panel before the members were forced to resign.

Filed in December, the lawsuit claimed the county commissioners wrongfully fired ethics commission members James F.W. Talley, Suzanne Primoff and John Harner. Harner died before the lawsuit was filed. The lawsuit linked the dismissals to an ethics commission investigation of Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, who was cleared of any wrongdoing.

"I'm very happy that the case has been dismissed," Gouge said yesterday. "As a board, we followed our attorney's advice that we were lawful, acting within our legislative authority."

In a written decision handed down yesterday, Judge Michael M. Galloway found that the commissioners were well within their legislative duties when they met in open session Dec. 3, 2002, and voted unanimously to immediately suspend ethics commission members and to request each member's resignation.

If the members did not resign, the commissioners told them they would be fired as of Dec. 31, 2002, for what the commissioners said was a misuse of their office and failure to follow the county's ethics code.

Galloway wrote that the commissioners were eligible to dismiss the lawsuit based on governmental immunity.

"I think his ruling is factually and legally sound," said Kevin Karpinski, attorney for the commissioners and County Attorney Kimberly A. Millender, who was also named in the lawsuit. "We're pleased Judge Galloway disposed of this case on a preliminary motion."

Karpinski filed a motion in June asking the judge to dismiss the lawsuit based on legislative immunity or issue a summary judgment in favor of the county.

When the lawsuit was filed, it reignited two years of controversy between the county commissioners and the previous ethics commission.

The lawsuit claimed that the commissioners' firing of the ethics commission members stemmed from an investigation into a December 2001 dispute between Union Bridge contractor Charles Stambaugh and Jill Gebhart, Gouge's daughter. Stambaugh accused Gebhart of using her mother's name to try to intimidate him.

Both the ethics commission members at the time and state prosecutors found some evidence of potential ethics violations, including the appearance of impropriety, but no charges were filed against Gouge.

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, while Gouge recused herself from the vote.

The lawsuit claimed that a letter from Millender to the former ethics commission members informing them of the commissioners' intent contained libelous statements against Talley and Primoff and inflicted emotional distress on them.

Richard F. Boddie, a Virginia lawyer representing Talley and Primoff, argued in a June hearing that writing the letter and disseminating it to the public fell outside of the legislative process and was not protected by governmental immunity.

Boddie did not return calls yesterday.

In his ruling, Galloway wrote that because Millender drafted the letter at the request of the commissioners, she fell within the criteria for public official immunity.

"We're obviously quite pleased with the decision," Millender said. "It's very nice to have this put behind and to be moving on."

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