Project raises ethics concerns

Grant to fund landscaping near DNR official's home was written by his wife

April 02, 2007|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun Reporter

Public land next to the Severna Park home of a top Department of Natural Resources official is being landscaped under a state grant written by his wife and approved by one of his employees.

Michael Slattery, the assistant secretary who oversees the Forest Service, and his wife, Britt, a one-time U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, are actively involved in the two-year project. A $5,800 grant and $12,000 worth of volunteer labor and nonmonetary contributions are paying for the work, according to the application filed with DNR.

The project involves shoring up a slope, removing non-native vegetation and replacing it with more than 500 native plants on a 30-foot-wide strip of land between the Slatterys' backyard and the popular B&A Trail, a former rail bed that runs from Glen Burnie to Annapolis.

Pictures of the project, including Michael Slattery removing weeds, are posted on the Fish and Wildlife Service Web site. A brown-and-white sign along the trail marks the joint state-federal-local project.

After inquiries from The Sun, DNR Secretary John Griffin asked Assistant Attorney General Joseph Gill, the agency's counsel, to review the case.

Michael Slattery said last week that the investigation cleared him because he wasn't involved in writing or approving the grant. The Maryland Ethics Commission concurred, Slattery said.

"I wasn't even aware that Forest Service grant money was involved until afterward," Slattery said. "It happened so far below my level. I don't get involved in those things. I cooperated with Joe. There was nothing illegal. There was nothing unethical."

Gill could not be reached for comment. Griffin said he could not discuss a personnel matter, and ethics commission Executive Director Suzanne Fox said she "couldn't confirm or deny" that the panel had reviewed the case.

Mary Boyle of the citizens watchdog group Common Cause Maryland said that at the very least the landscaping grant "certainly raises a question of appearances."

"Any reasonable person would look at this situation and say, `Hmmm, this looks a little funny to me,'" she said. "This puts a cloud over him. Someone in his position should be sensitive to the perception of something like this."

Issue raised

Although Slattery has been cleared at the state level, cases that raise questions of conflict of interest resonate with the public, said Dr. Fred Guy, director of the University of Baltimore's Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics.

"These cases fuel the continued erosion of public trust," Guy said. "There's so many ways to be in conflict these days. This seems like a really creative way to be in conflict."

As a result of Gill's review, Slattery said, DNR has instituted an additional step in the grant application process that requires DNR Assistant Secretary Kristin Saunders to sign off on any similar grant applications.

The Severn River Association, a local civic group, applied for the grant in May 2005. It was approved by a state forestry coordinator a month later, with an end date of June 1.

Thistle Cone, association president, said Britt Slattery, who, until recently ran the Fish and Wildlife Service's Bayscapes program, was a key player in securing the money.

"Britt Slattery was the one who told us about it," said Cone of the grant. "She wrote a lot of it ... and did the planting plan. It helped that we had a willing landowner to take part."

As part of the landscaping, that willing landowner - the Slatterys - received an "evergreen privacy screen" of 21 trees and shrubs worth $1,720 between their backyard and the trail. The application says at maturity, the evergreens will range from 6 feet to 75 feet in height.

Receipts for the project show that plants and bushes were delivered to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Slatterys' home address.

The grant application said the Slatterys promise to carry out "subsequent maintenance," including "weeding and monitoring plant health."

The grant request said the project "will serve as an educational model" to encourage property owners in the Severn River and Chesapeake Bay watershed to practice erosion control and plant native vegetation.

Example questioned

But Guy, the ethics expert, said that given the circumstances surrounding the Slattery project, it's hard to imagine it serving as an example.

"It must be nice to have the state pay for and improve the attractiveness of his property," Guy said. "If you want to be fair, let's have everyone along the trail get this kind of landscaping."

Marian Honeczy, DNR forestry coordinator, said she did not know the identity of the property owner when she approved the grant. But when she saw Britt Slattery's name on the reimbursement form, she "took note of it," and notified her immediate supervisors.

"Because of her position with the Bayscapes program, I know she is someone that homeowners associations work with," Honeczy said. "So it didn't surprise me to see her name, based on the type of application it was."

Honeczy said Michael Slattery never contacted her about the grant.

"How long has he been assistant secretary? Five years?" she said. "I've talked to him twice in the last five years and not about this."

candy.thomson@baltsun

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