Winkler Is Cleared Of Ethics Charges

Richard A. Winkler, center, gets a handshake from Charles County Commissioner Robert Fuller and applause from Commissioner Al Smith.
Richard A. Winkler, center, gets a handshake from Charles County Commissioner Robert Fuller and applause from Commissioner Al Smith. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 27, 2006

Longtime Charles County fiscal services director Richard A. Winkler retired this week after spending more than a year embroiled in an ethics investigation involving the highest levels of county government.

And in the final, dramatic twist of a thorny plot, the man who started it all in March 2005, Commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large), absolved Winkler of all charges.

The county's Ethics Commission last year determined that Winkler and then-County Administrator Eugene T. Lauer, both military veterans, violated conflict-of-interest rules by participating in talks about a change in the county employee pension plan to add a bonus to retirees with military service. However, the commission recommended no reprimand or other disciplinary action against Winkler and Lauer, who retired from his post last October. The commission acted after a complaint filed by Cooper, creating much controversy within the county government.

At the board's Monday morning meeting, dozens of county employees gathered to honor Winkler for his 27 years of service to Charles County government. Cooper read a letter from the five-member Board of Commissioners to Winkler that exonerates Winkler of the ethics charges. The letter carried Cooper's signature.

"The County Commissioners of Charles County have determined that it is in the best interest to resolve all outstanding disputes with you," Cooper read. "You have provided exemplary services to the citizens of Charles County during your service as director of fiscal services and at all times acted with the highest degree of professionalism and integrity."

Winkler, in an interview following the ceremony, said he was taken aback by the wording of Cooper's statement.

"I was a little surprised that the language was as strong as it was," Winkler said.

He added: "I have conducted myself in the same professional conduct for 27 years."

The ethics complaint promises to be an issue for Cooper in his campaign for reelection to the board presidency -- at least if Commissioner Al Smith (R-Waldorf), who is running for the Republican nomination to challenge Cooper, has anything to say about it.

At Monday's meeting, after Cooper read the letter, Smith took the microphone and said the county did "the right thing today by restoring this man's honor."

"It's a necessary day for this county to have vindicated him and honored him for his 27 years of service, which should never had been questioned," Smith said, in a not-so-subtle jab at Cooper.

"This man, whom I've known ever since my first days at [the] county, has always impressed me with the highest degree of integrity, the highest degree of honor and the highest degree of trust," Smith added.

Commissioner Robert Fuller (D-St. Charles), who also is retiring from office this year, presented Winkler with a plaque honoring his years of service. Commissioners Edith J. Patterson (D-Pomfret) and Candice Quinn Kelly (R-La Plata) both thanked Winkler for his work directing the county's budget.

And Winkler, ever the policy wonk, was all business with his final words: "I leave you, I believe, on sound financial footing," he told county workers to a standing ovation.

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