Md. probing government of Aberdeen

State prosecutor seeks records on recent controversies

Sun exclusive

June 09, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN REPORTER

The Office of the State Prosecutor has launched a wide-ranging investigation involving Aberdeen's city government, requesting a slew of records from elected officials and city employees, according to interviews and a copy of a subpoena obtained by The Sun.

The subpoena, which Aberdeen City Manager Douglas R. Miller said was served May 22, asks officials to provide all records related to a number of recent hot-button issues in the growing military town of 14,000.

State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh, whose office was established to investigate political corruption, declined to discuss the nature of the probe. But among the records his office has demanded are those related to the hiring of an accountant through a no-bid contract that was a source of controversy in Aberdeen last year.

Investigators also want to see all documents connected to an annexation proposal that citizens blocked through a referendum last fall.

No charges have been filed, and a Harford County grand jury is set to review the records June 19, according to the subpoena.

Miller said the prosecutor's office is seeking information from the city's five elected officials and full-time department heads, such as Chief of Police Randy M. Rudy and the directors of public works, finance and planning. He informed city officials at a staff meeting Thursday morning after receiving a Freedom of Information request for the subpoena from The Sun.

Miller said he was puzzled by the state inquiry. "I'm scratching my head," Miller said. "I don't know anywhere in this where we have done anything incorrectly."

Among the records sought by investigators:

Documents related to the hiring of a Churchville accountant and business partner of first-term Mayor S. Fred Simmons to audit the city's finances. Officials said Stephen M. Wright received nearly $100,000 for less than six months of work, an arrangement that was not voted on by the City Council.

Travel receipts for trips sponsored by the federal Office of Economic Adjustment to discuss military-related growth at Aberdeen Proving Ground, as well as statements and receipts for city-issued credit cards and expense accounts.

An Army feasibility study of the joint use of APG's Phillips Army Airfield. For nearly 20 years, the Army has considered the prospect of opening the 10,000-foot runway to civilian and commercial traffic. A $300,000 study was recently completed.

Copies of donations and expenses relating to the annual Mayor's Ball. An agenda for a City Council meeting scheduled for Monday shows that the city will introduce a line-item amendment to reimburse the general fund for money used to pay for last December's ball, which did not receive sufficient private contributions.

Annexation proposals received by the city. Simmons championed a 500-acre annexation proposal last year, which he said could have created housing for hundreds of new residents arriving as a result of the national Base Realignment and Closure process, also known as BRAC.

A group of residents who lobbied against the annexation have complained that the plan was hastily approved and have accused Simmons of a cozy relationship with the developer.

Simmons, who learned of the investigation after being questioned by a reporter, called it an election-year "smear campaign."

"I find it strange that someone on a state level would wait ... to get [the investigation] done before the election," said Simmons, whose term expires in November. "If they want to come in, they want to look at it, that's fine. It was all done above board. But the allegation will stick with me."

Councilwoman Ruth Elliott said she was not surprised by the inquiry. She said she has frequently sought records and questioned the administration's practices, though she added that she did not contact the state prosecutor's office. "I've complained about this," she said. "This is not stuff that is new to me."

Minutes show Wright's contract first came to light at a March 13, 2006, City Council meeting, with some residents questioning whether the arrangement was ethical.

Simmons' predecessor had been dogged by a budget shortfall, and both the longtime city manager and public works director resigned under pressure. Within months after the election, the city attorney and finance director had also left.

With the budget in flux and few experienced employees on the municipal payroll, Simmons met with City Councilmen Ronald Kupferman and David Yensan, officials said. The three agreed that the city should hire accountant Wright, who is also Simmons' business partner in a local airport, to review the city's books.

Wright was paid $150 an hour, officials said. The council never took a vote on the move, and two other City Council members, Elliott and Michael G. Hiob, said they were not informed that Wright had been hired until inquiring about the situation.

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