Montgomery County Executive Charles Gilchrist yesterday sought to refute charges of a county board that his office had improperly interfered in the appointment of a county liquor department official, saying the board's report actually was a step toward, vindicating his position in the controversy surrounding the department.
"I am relieved and gratified by the report in two fundamental ways," Gilchrist said. "It seems to have laid to rest some serious questions about the whole liquor matter . . . and it also lays to rest another serious issue. The board found no evidence to support allegations of collusion."
In its report, the county's Merit System Protection Board cited five merit system violations including "improper interference in the screening and examination process by the county executive's office" in the hiring last April of Frank Orifici as deputy director of the county's Department of Liquor Control. It suggested that Orifici's appointment could be invalidated if its findings are upheld.
Gilchrist said yesterday he did not believe anything improper had been done and defended Orifici's performance in the liquor department job.
The Merit System Protection board conducted a 26-week, $70,000 investigation of charges that the job of deputy director in the county's liquor department had been rigged in violation of merit regulations. The investigation stemmed from a complaint filed nearly two years ago by Irwin Feldman, a liquor salesman who applied for the job Frank Orifici landed but who failed to obtain an interview.
Gilchrist conceded that his former aide, Gerald Evans, who resigned in March, had lobbied two of the three people on the screening panel that conducted the interviews in behald of Orifici, but he denied that such contact was in violation of the county merit regulations.
"The rules do not state that it is wrong," Gilchrist said. "What we come down to is a gray area. There are no rules about the Qualifications Appraisal Board. There is no statement anywhere that these people are in a test tube. I contest the inference that a recommendation made to the QAB was wrong under the merit system rules."
Gilchrist became testy at one point when reporters pressed him to explain how he could assert that nothing improper had been done after the county's own personnel board tentatively concluded that the hiring was a violation of merit system rules and that Orifici could be removed if their findings are upheld at a hearing later this summer.
"What rules?" he said repeatedly. "Show me the rules!"
The investigation of the personnel board found that Gilchrist "concurred that Mr. Orifici was the individual who should be appointed" before the QAB board had rated the finalists for the deputy director job, and that his aide, Evans, "was instrumental" in selecting Pierre Eaton, a radio station executive, to serve on the three-member board even though Eaton had written Orifici a letter of recommendation and was a business associate of the candidate.
Gilchrist, who in the past has said that "even the appearance of possible impropriety is unacceptable" conceded that the lobbying that had been done on Orifici's behalf, "was bad practice but at the time it was done in good faith" and that it will not be done in the future. He said the issue is part of the larger problem of what should be the county executive's role in attracting and hiring skilled employes to county government, and that he has forbidden contact with qualification review boards examining potential county employes.
Gilchrist also reissued copies of a memorandum he wrote in February to the Merit System Review Commission on the role of the executive in the merit system. In the memo, Gilchrist attempted to head off allegations that his office had interfered with the merit procedures by stating, "I have concluded that my office should not suggest persons to be appointed to a QAB except in those instances when I am the appointing authority for a merit position on the Executive Management staff."