Lavell Merritt, Montgomery County's minority purchasing officer who is accused of using his office to conduct private business, said yesterday he told the county Ethics Commission that he committed three ethical "improprieties" but did not break the law.
In an emotional interview after a four-hour closed hearing before the ethics panel, Merritt also announced that he wants to leave the $25,000-a-year post he has held since October 1981.
"I haven't violated the ethics laws, but some of the things I did were improper and I told the commission so," said Merritt, 55. "I don't want to quit and give the impression that I was driven from government, but my usefulness has been reduced to nothing. The position I'm in is not acceptable to me now."
The Ethics Commission told Merritt on May 18 that its initial investigation found a "reasonable basis" for believing he violated the county's 1971 conflict-of-interest law in five instances.
Answering the allegations yesterday, Merritt said he told the panel that he acted improperly when he asked a list of county contractors to buy tickets to a fashion show he was sponsoring to raise funds for Howard University, and that he should have disclosed his ownership of Akenaton Industries, a firm that refines used motor oil, to which checks for the show were supposed to be made payable and sent to his home in Silver Spring. He said he also acknowledged that he should not have written a letter on county stationery trying to secure a $1 billion line of credit from the People's Republic of China to provide loans to black businesses in the Washington area.
Merritt also improperly used his office to promote the Black Leadership Assembly, a now-defunct coalition of business and religious leaders that he cofounded, the commission charged. Merritt said he was unrepentant about that effort, although "perhaps I shouldn't have used county office space or stationery to do that. But there was nothing illegal in my goals and no personal gain for me."
According to Merritt and other sources, at the start of yesterday's hearing the commission dropped a fifth charge alleging that Merritt tried to coerce members of a Washington-based business association into joining a private venture of his.
"I haven't violated the ethics laws, but those were improprieties because I was so intimately involved with the governmental process," Merritt said in an interview. "There is a propriety related to government employes, although I do not agree that my job position is so important."
As minority purchasing officer, Merritt said he is supposed to find firms run by minorities, women or the disabled that are eligible for county contracts. He said he has no authority to approve county purchases, only the power to recommend the awarding of county contracts to minority-run firms.
Senior Assistant County Attorney Clyde H. (Rocky) Sorrell, whose office presented the case against Merritt, declined comment on yesterday's hearing. However, Sorrell said the four Ethics Commission members who heard the case reached a tentative decision on the four charges against Merritt. Neither Sorrell nor other commission members reached for comment would discuss the decision, which is expected to be forwarded to Merritt within 10 days.
If the commission rules that Merritt violated the ethics law, it can refer the matter to the state's or county attorneys for prosecution or send the case to county officials for administrative action against Merritt.
The civil penalties could range from a written reprimand to Merritt's firing, officials said. If Merritt is convicted of criminal charges, he could face a $1,000 fine and six-month jail term for each violation.