Ex-officials challenge ethics ruling

Scheibe, Dvorak held major county jobs before successful homeowner suit

June 03, 2007|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,sun reporter

They were high-ranking decision-makers in Anne Arundel County government in the 1990s: Attorney Phillip F. Scheibe oversaw the law office, and Robert J. Dvorak served as planning and zoning chief, among other administrative jobs.

After both left the government, Scheibe sued the county in 2001 on behalf of homebuyers in an Odenton community - and with his law partner, John R. Greiber Jr., won a $4.7 million judgment. Their expert? Dvorak, whose department was involved in the impact fee program at the center of that lawsuit.

Tomorrow, Maryland's highest court will hear arguments in a dispute that has sprouted from that case: whether Scheibe and Dvorak violated Anne Arundel ethics laws by using their insider knowledge against the county.

Depending on how the Court of Appeals rules, Scheibe could lose his share of the lawyers' 30 percent fee in the award - about $1.5 million.

Scheibe and Dvorak maintain they have done nothing wrong because they neither were intimately involved in dealing with the impact fees nor used confidential county information to prepare the lawsuit.

"They are saying the information was not generally available to the public. I have a problem with that," Scheibe said.

They used financial records that are available to the public and a report from the Anne Arundel County Home Builders Association for the lawsuit, he said.

Anne Arundel's ethics law bars former employees from representing anyone in matters involving the county in which they had "participated significantly" during their tenure with the county or using confidential county information to help others in such matters. It does not set a time limit.

"How long do you have to be an ex-employee before you can do anything with the county? Betsy Dawson says it is a lifetime ban," Dvorak said, referring to the commission executive.

Dawson declined to comment for this article.

Anne Arundel County began collecting impact fees in 1988 from developers. The fee, which is passed on to the homebuyer, is to be spent on road and other improvements necessitated by the new developments. Money left unspent after six years is supposed to be refunded to the property owner.

The class-action lawsuit, filed by a group of homeowners in the Seven Oaks community, claimed the county should refund as much as $27 million to property owners because it misspent the money or improperly gave itself an extension on the time limit.

The Ethics Commission cited Scheibe and Dvorak under a provision enacted in 2003, one that the men contend should not apply t0o them retroactively but that the commission said is nearly identical to the one it replaced.

In its March 2006 decision, the Ethics Commission found that Scheibe as top legal officer for the county obtained a legal opinion that said the county could not use impact fees for school renovations. It ordered Dvorak to stop assisting Scheibe and Greiber in this case, and Scheibe to stop all work on it. Both were told to accept no more payment.

The commission also said that Dvorak signed a letter extending the deadline for using impact fees and managed the planning and zoning office's role in the impact fee program.

Scheibe withdrew from a similar case after the Attorney Grievance Commission reprimanded him for a conflict of interest, according to the ethics board.

Scheibe and Dvorak claim that the complaint and the Ethics Commission's actions against them were political maneuvers aimed at hurting the lawsuit by trying to remove knowledgeable players from it. Then-County Executive Janet S. Owens made the complaint in 2004 and had appointed the commission members.

Owens could not be reached for comment.

There is no estimate of when the court will issue a ruling.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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