In turning down Police Chief Charles A. Moose's request to pursue book and movie deals about his role in last fall's sniper manhunt, the Montgomery County Ethics Commission withstood a vigorous, and some critics say unseemly, behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and his top aides.
Duncan's effort to sway the five members of the Ethics Commission, all of whom he appointed, began in January with public appeals for their support. It concluded with a confidential letter to commission members March 12, warning that Moose might quit if they turned him down.
"Every decision we made," said Duncan spokesman David Weaver, "was made with the clear and unmistakable knowledge that [Duncan] wanted to make this happen."
Duncan's efforts failed last week. The commission ruled that Moose's commercial ventures would betray "bedrock principles" of the county's ethics code.
For his part, Duncan (D) viewed his intervention as an act of loyalty to a hero cop. But other officials saw it as an unseemly attempt to strong-arm a panel designed to operate with complete independence.
"Having him publicly urge the ethics commissioners to reach a particular conclusion struck me as very unusual," said County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg). "I'm not sure it's ever happened before. And I'm not sure it ever should happen."
When questions first arose this year about the popular chief's publishing deal -- and its apparent violation of a county provision that bans employees from using the prestige of their office for personal gain -- Duncan jumped to his defense. "This is a special circumstance," Duncan said in January. "He's got a great story to tell America, and he should be able to do that. Yes, we've got some ethics issues to get through, but we'll look at anything we need to do to make it work."
If necessary, he said at the time, he would ask the County Council for special legislation authorizing the deal. (Moose later asked Duncan to drop that idea.)
Duncan then assigned Bruce Romer, the county's chief administrative officer, to help Moose win the commission's support of his outside employment. Romer sat down with Moose in early February and devised a plan to submit five applications to the panel: for his teaching job at Montgomery College; his service in the Air National Guard; a consulting firm he had started with his wife; and one each for the book and movie projects. (Last month the commission approved the teaching job and military service. A decision on the consulting firm is pending.)
"We reasoned we had a strong basis for the first three, while the book and movie were sufficiently more difficult," Romer said.
The day after the applications were filed, Romer wrote a letter to Ethics Commission Chair Elizabeth K. Kellar. The two have a friendly relationship. Romer is immediate past president of the International City/County Management Association, a professional group for government administrators, and Kellar works there as a staff member.
"I . . . would appreciate your favorable consideration on these matters," Romer wrote to her, adding later, "I want to personally reiterate that the County Executive believes this story is one that ought to be told."
In early March, as the Ethics Commission prepared to meet and discuss Moose's applications, Romer called the commission's executive secretary, Barbara McNally, to advise her that he and Moose wished to sit in on the closed-door session. Applicants are allowed to attend, but it's unusual for them to do so. Romer said he had not been to one in six years.
The meeting was heated. Raised voices could be heard from behind the closed door. After the meeting concluded, Romer said, he was advised that Moose would have to seek waivers from the commission to have a chance at approval of the book and movie deals. Moose would qualify for waivers only if he could show that his book and movie projects were in the best interests of the county.
Moose hired an attorney to help him prepare the argument. It took the form of a six-page letter to Kellar, mailed March 10. "I believe these waivers will be in the best interest of the county for numerous reasons," Moose wrote. Among them: that he, as the person at the center of the sniper case, is one of the few people who can tell the story accurately; that the book and movie would help the image of the county; and that the positive image he presents will assist the county in recruiting.
Moose's letter also mentions that his salary ($160,619 a year) is "considerably below" those of other police chiefs, citing by way of example the Atlanta chief. Waivers would remedy that problem, he said, "at absolutely no cost to county taxpayers."
He also said he would set up a charitable foundation to use a part of the book and movie proceeds to assist victims of violence.
Two days later, Duncan followed up with his own letter to Kellar. "The most obvious benefit" of approving the waivers, Duncan says, "will be in retaining [Moose] as our employee. I do not know that he would leave service if a waiver is not granted, but I would like to avoid forcing that possibility."
Romer said it was logical to have Duncan write to the board. Who better than the county's top elected official to weigh in on what best serves the county's interests? Moose attorney Ronald Karp agreed, saying Duncan's view should have prevailed over that of "five non-elected volunteers meeting in secret."
Moose has not spoken publicly since the commission's denial, but Karp said he will meet with the Mooses this weekend to evaluate options. One scenario, he said, is to simply ignore the ruling.
"What would the penalty be?" Karp asked. "If you write a book, you're going to jail? There's just no logical way for a court to resolve that, to ever tell anybody you can't write a book."
Another option, Karp said, would be to challenge the ruling in court on constitutional grounds. The ruling, Karp said, could be viewed as a violation of Moose's free-speech rights. And, he added, he has concerns about whether Moose's due-process rights were abridged.
Whatever Moose's next step may be, the ruling was a victory for the five commissioners, said Laurie B. Horvitz, a lawyer who served on the Ethics Commission from 1993 to 1999. "Regardless of whether the decision was correct, it had to take a lot of conviction and principle to reach it," Horvitz said.