Accountant for Aberdeen says he has assisted probe

His contract with city was subpoenaed by state

June 12, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

An accountant whose contract with the city of Aberdeen is among the documents subpoenaed by the state prosecutor's office said he has voluntarily turned over material to assist with the probe and criticized suggestions that his hiring was unethical.

Stephen M. Wright, a Churchville accountant and business partner of Aberdeen Mayor S. Fred Simmons, was hired to review the city's finances after Simmons took office in November 2005. The City Council was not involved in the process of hiring Wright, who was paid nearly $100,000 for about six months' work in 2006.

Wright's work for the city is one component of a broad investigation by the office of the state prosecutor, which has subpoenaed records relating to a range of city activities including officials' travel expenses and a $300,000 study of an Army-owned airfield at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Investigators also requested documents related to the Mayor's Ball. In December, the city transferred funds to make up for a shortfall in private contributions for the annual event. At its meeting last night, the council formally approved the transfer of $9,660 for costs related to the ball, less than three weeks after investigators asked for records of the event.

State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh has declined to discuss the investigation. No charges have been filed.

Wright said he contacted investigators after receiving an inquiry from a reporter two weeks ago, and later turned over seven boxes of documents. He said he has spoken with investigators, who told him that the review has been under way since March.

The investigation renews a debate about Wright's hiring that began when residents raised questions last year. In a six-page statement provided to The Sun, Wright said council members were aware of his work for the city and never suggested terminating the $150-an-hour contract. His business relationship with Simmons also was disclosed, he said.

He met frequently with members of the council to discuss questions about the city's finances, he said. Among the officials he met with was Councilwoman Ruth Elliott, who served with Wright on an audit committee and later questioned whether his employment was ethical.

"The primary reasons for my hiring was that the city needed a certified public accountant who could provide frank and straightforward answers to questions about the financial dealings; the City's Budget and books and records; the [Ripken] Stadium contracts; cash flow issues; and the city's inability to timely pay its bills, all under the previous administration," Wright said in the statement.

Wright's contract was discussed at a council meeting March 13, 2006, when some residents questioned whether the arrangement was ethical. Then-council President Ronald Kupferman called the contract a "good investment," according to meeting minutes, and Simmons offered residents a chance to view invoices.

In an interview last month, Simmons said that he believed Wright's contract did not require the approval of the council and that he did not seek to keep the contract secret.

Simmons and Wright became business partners as owners of a local airport in 2002, after Wright filed suit against the airport owner for breach of contract and won a $2.1 million judgment, according to court records. Simmons, an insurance agent and garnishee of the Churchville airfield, and Wright took control under the name Simmons-Wright Aeropark LLC.

Wright has become increasingly active in politics in recent years, winning a spot on the Harford County Republican Central Committee last year and working in Annapolis during the past legislative session as an aide to state Sen. J. Robert Hooper, a Republican who represents northern Harford.

Through their company, Wright and Simmons have contributed almost $10,000 to political campaigns recently, and Wright served as Simmons' campaign treasurer during his run for office in 2005.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Madison Park contributed to this article.

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