Montgomery ethics panel hears complaint against ex-inspector general

December 12, 2011

In a rare public meeting, a Montgomery County panel charged with enforcing local ethics laws openly discussed on Monday allegations against the county’s former inspector general.

The county ethics commission normally weighs such issues in private, but ex-inspector general Thomas J. Dagley requested that the hearing be open to the public.

Following their investigation into a complaint filed by former County Council member Duchy Trachtenberg, commission members were trying to determine whether Dagley violated ethics rules. Trachtenberg said Dagley used his position to inappropriately pressure human resources officials to give a pay raise to his deputy, Christopher Giusti.

Dagley — who resigned midway through his second four-year term and amid acrimonious relations with some county officials — has denied any wrongdoing. He said the complaint was an effort to discredit his work.

“It appears the administration wants a public reprimand or other sanction against me to help them move past [my] candid, publicly released reports that covered” controversial actions by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), Dagley said in a statement before the hearing Monday.

Leggett declined to comment.

Associate County Attorney Christine M. Collins said at the hearing that Dagley’s reports did not spark the ethics complaint and that he pressured human resources director Joseph Adler. “Mr. Dagley got what he wanted by ways of threat and intimidation,” she said.

Trachtenberg, who is running for Congress as a Democrat in Maryland’s newly configured 6th District, did not attend the hearing and did not provide testimony.

Dagley said that he requested an increase to Giusti's pay, which was about $105,000, in June 2009 because colleagues in similar positions of authority were getting significantly more. Dagley debated with Adler over the increase until that September, lawyers said at the hearing. An increase to $128,000 was approved in October, and Trachtenberg filed the complaint the next month.

Shortly after filing the complaint, Trachtenberg cited an ­e-mail that Dagley sent to Adler in which he mused about whether the issue of management pay should be investigated.

Adler said at the hearing that he perceived the e-mail as a “veiled threat.” But Stephen B. Farber, the County Council’s staff director, said Dagley made a “mistake born out of a frustration,” not a threat.

Dagley said he is still concerned about how the county pays its managers. Adler said at the hearing that since the complaint, he has changed his management pay policy to make it fairer for smaller county departments. The current deputy inspector general, John Hummel, makes $125,000 a year.

The county’s inspector general role has been embattled since it was created 14 years ago. The first inspector general, Norman D. Butts, resigned after he clashed with the county executive and his office survived a council member’s threats to abolish it. And Dagley wrote an editorial in September in which he chided top Montgomery officials, saying they “have grown too accustomed to operating behind closed doors and avoiding the tough questions.”

The meeting resembled a court hearing, with opening statements and closing arguments, and subpoenaed witnesses at the stand. But there were a few differences. The meeting place was a shabby, small conference room on the second floor of a government building. The lawyers squabbled over how to introduce evidence. The commission also allowed lawyers to introduce hearsay as evidence.

No decision was reached Monday. If the panel were to conclude that Dagley violated county ethics law, it could issue penalties, such as a public reprimand, or impose a fine up to $1,000. Commission chair Nina A. Weisbroth said the board will render a decision as soon as possible.

“This will be a little novel for us, too,” she said before the hearing.

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