Ethics decision draws ire

Panel orders ex-county staffers off Cambridge Commons case

March 22, 2006|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL | ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN REPORTER

A one-time county attorney and a former top county administrator have been ordered to take no part in the multimillion-dollar legal fight over whether Anne Arundel County improperly used the impact fees imposed on new construction and whether refunds are due to property owners.

The order, issued last week by the county's Ethics Commission, drew an angry response from the two, lawyer Phillip F. Scheibe and former planning chief Robert J. Dvorak. They contended the administration of County Executive Janet S. Owens has been trying to stall the case so that as much as $27 million in potential refunds would not be ordered during Owens' term in office.

Scheibe, along with attorney John R. Greiber Jr., sued the county in 2001 seeking the funds, and they hired Dvorak as an expert in the case. Greiber said he plans to appeal the ruling to the county's Circuit Court and seek a stay of the Ethics Commission decision.

The decision came as both the county and Greiber are preparing for a May 8 hearing related to possible damages the county might be forced to pay in what is known as the "Cambridge Commons case," the suit filed in 2001 on behalf of the developer and homeowners in an Odenton community.

Impact fees are money developers pay to the county toward road and school improvements. The lawsuit could affect as many as 40,000 homeowners, Scheibe and Greiber have contended.

Scheibe was the county attorney from the end of 1994 through mid-1999.

Dvorak held several administrative posts during his 23-year tenure with the county, including as a planning official between 1993 and early 1995, and chief administrative officer until his 1997 retirement.

The complaint, filed by Owens in June 2004, alleged that Dvorak and Scheibe used inside knowledge of the impact fee program to try to make money suing the county after they left county jobs.

"Mr. Dvorak and Mr. Scheibe were particularly well-placed in positions of power and influence so as to be kept fully informed of the issues involving the impact fee law," the commission wrote.

In the 35-page opinion dated March 13, the seven-member commission found that "Dvorak himself participated significantly in the county's administration of the impact fee program" and in the lawsuit worked for Greiber and Scheibe. The decision says that Scheibe, while county attorney, sought and obtained opinions on impact fee use.

The commission ordered both to end their participation in the case and barred them from accepting further compensation from it.

Scheibe withdrew from another impact fee case after he received a private reprimand from the Attorney Grievance Commission for a conflict of interest, according to the commission's opinion.

Owens said through a spokeswoman that she hopes the ruling sends a message to governmental appointees. Regarding the allegations that the Owens administration was delaying the Cambridge Commons case for political reasons, her spokeswoman, Rhonda Wardlaw, said the county would respond to facts, not allegations.

Dvorak maintained that his work on the lawsuit was based on public records. "Anybody could go down and get that information," he said. Scheibe said that the opinions he obtained were on whether the county could use impact fees collected from one area to benefit another, and that is not the focus of the Cambridge Commons case.

In interviews, the men contended that commission members were wrong to handle the complaint against them because Owens appointed them. In addition, Commission Chairman Christopher S. Rizek sent $250 to Owens' election committee a month before she filed the complaint, according to State Board of Elections records, which Dvorak and Scheibe said is troubling.

Commission Executive Director Betsy K. Dawson said the county charter does not bar ethics panel members from making political contributions. Rizek declined to comment.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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