A 14-month study of the Montgomery County liquor department by the county's Merit System Protection Board concluded yesterday that county officials had abused personnel rules.
The final report by the board, the county's watchdog agency on personnel matters, focused on the 1980 hiring of Frank Orifici as deputy director of the county's $70 million Department of Liquor Control. Spurned applicants had charged that the job had been "rigged" for Orifici, as he is related by marriage to Charles Buscher, a campaign promoter and liquor adviser to County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist.
The three-member board reaffirmed tentative findings made last July that there was "improper influence in the screening and examination process" in the hiring of Orifici. The board also said the job was advertised improperly.
The report states, "When all of the circumstances and evidence are considered in their entirety, we believe any reasonable person would reach the same conclusions we did--that the merit system was abused by county officials."
The board did not find Gilchrist had committed specific wrongs but did object to lobbying efforts on Orifici's behalf by former Gilchrist aide Gerard Evans. The former aide had received a $2,000 loan from Buscher four months before Orifici was appointed to the county liquor job.
The board also criticized an earlier report directed by Gilchrist's chief administrative officer, Robert W. Wilson, a study that supported several of the Orifici hiring procedures.
Under the merit system, county officials cannot interfere in the hiring process after a person has applied for a job. The county executive controls only 24 of the county's 6,000 jobs. The rest are merit positions he cannot affect.
At a press conference yesterday, Gilchrist said the board said nothing new, but made "some useful suggestions" on improving the merit system. Gilchrist said he acknowledged a year ago that it was wrong for his office to intervene in the selection process.
"It comes down to one job two years ago and a mistake that was made," Gilchrist said. "It was not damaging. The people will put it into perspective. It is not an issue of integrity."
Councilman David Scull called the report the strongest statement to date on the liquor controversy and said it "analyzed the words of (Gilchrist's) staff, compared it to their policy and practices and basically said they didn't tell the truth."
Scull, who may oppose Gilchrist for the Democratic nomination for county executive this year, said that "things were done that were wrong, but (Gilchrist's) response was to justify, not to correct."
Del. Luiz Simmons, considered the strongest Republican to contemplate running for county executive, said the report proved that the county is "corrupted by influence peddling at the highest levels of county government."
This is the fourth investigation the County Council has paid for since September 1980 regarding hiring practices at the liquor department. More than $370,000 has been spent on the reports.
In the latest study, the board suggested several reforms to prevent abuses of the merit system.
The board recommended that the county executive should prepare within 60 days a program to improve recruitment and the selection process for applicants to merit system jobs and write guidelines forbidding elected and appointed officials from screening applicants. The board also asked for the new authority to cancel improper merit system appointments.
Gilchrist said he agreed with most of the proposed changes, but did not favor granting the board the power to reverse hirings.
The controversy over the county's liquor department began in the summer of 1980 with newspaper reports of mismanagement problems within agency. In January 1981, auditors from the firm of Touche-Ross and Co., hired by the county, said they were unable to prove charges that the department practiced favoritism toward certain distillers.
A seven-month grand jury investigation by the Montgomery State's Attorney's Office ended in April without bringing charges. The grand jury had looked into allegations of bribery, favoritism and questionable purchasing within the department.
In July, the initial report by the merit board found problems with Orifici's appointment and asked for $50,000 in emergency money for additional study of hiring in the county.
Robert Trout, a lawyer hired by the County Council, reported in October he found nothing improper within the department. He also said there was nothing illegal about the $2,000 loan from Buscher to Evans.
A day later, Gerald C. Ruter, an assistant state special prosecutor, closed his investigation of the case, agreeing the loan broke no laws.
In November, the merit board announced that one dissatisfied job seeker had dropped his appeal of the Orifici appointment. As part of that settlement, more than 2,000 pages of depositions taken during the board's probe were made public. That settlement also included two public hearings conducted by the board in December that examined the entire merit system.
The report on the Orifici appointment ends the merit board's examination of the liquor department, but the board will continue to probe other alleged hiring violations in other parts of county government.