What began as a routine discussion about retirement benefits for Charles County employees with military experience has led to the early departure of the county's top administrator and has alienated another respected longtime county official.

For at least six months, the county's Ethics Commission has been investigating whether County Administrator Eugene T. Lauer and Fiscal Services Director Richard Winkler -- both military veterans -- had a conflict of interest when they participated in talks about enhancing benefits for employees who have served in the military, according to two county government sources with direct knowledge of the complaint.

The ethics panel's review was prompted by a complaint filed by commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large) in March, according to the sources, who requested anonymity because such confidential proceedings involve sensitive personnel matters.

Cooper did not return calls for comment Friday. He has said he cannot confirm or deny the existence of the complaint.

But Commissioner Al Smith (R-Waldorf) said he is speaking out because he is dismayed by how the situation has been handled. The review, he said, has been unfair to the two employees and created an atmosphere of instability at the highest levels of county government.

"If I had a problem with something you did, I would bring you in personally and ask you if you did something before I just go and court-martial you, so to speak," said Smith, who has not seen the complaint but learned of it from someone intimately familiar with the details.

"It's very disturbing and disheartening, and I think it goes to the heart of creating an environment of mistrust."

Commissioner Candice Quinn Kelly (R-La Plata) was appointed to the board after the meetings in question last year and also has not seen the complaint, but she said of the case, "Certainly it's gone on too long."

At a November meeting, the county employees Pension Plan Committee discussed adding military service to the formula for calculating benefits for the 1,145 retirees, according to minutes from the meeting. The committee, which oversees a $53 million system, includes Lauer, Winkler, two human resources employees and another county employee.

In Charles County, sheriff's deputies, paramedics, correctional officers and dispatchers with military experience already receive up to three years of additional credit toward retirement if they have worked for the county for 10 years.

Other jurisdictions, including Prince George's County, which is covered by the state pension system, offer such credit to rank-and-file employees.

Retirement benefits are calculated according to an employee's average salary during the final three years of work and a person's total years on the job. For an employee who earned an average of $100,000 and worked 15 years, a military credit of three years would enhance annual retirement benefits by $6,750 -- from $26,250 to $33,000.

Lauer, 58, served in the Army, and Winkler, 64, served in the Air Force. Both men declined to comment.

According to minutes from the November pension committee meeting, after the discussion of expanding benefits, "Mr. Lauer and Mr. Winkler recused themselves on this vote" to recommend that the commissioners change the pension plan.

The state requires Charles County to honor military service credit for employees who have received the benefit through employment for other Maryland counties. Lauer will receive the credit regardless of any future benefit expansion because of his tenure in Prince George's.

A month after the pension committee met, the issue was discussed by the county commissioners. Commissioner Robert J. Fuller (D-St. Charles), a military veteran, "voiced his concern with voting for a motion that he would personally benefit from," according to the minutes of the Dec. 14 meeting.

County Attorney Roger Fink responded that "while the commissioners might be impacted personally, the findings are for the benefit of the county's employee system" and that it "would not be a conflict of interest."

Three of the four commissioners present voted for the changes. Del. W. Daniel Mayer (R-Charles), who was then a county commissioner, said in an interview that he abstained from voting because "the subject hadn't been researched and only affected a very limited number of people."

Mayer said he later asked Cooper to revisit the issue in January. The commissioners did so Jan. 24. Fuller requested that his vote be rescinded, and Smith withdrew his motion. Cooper then directed Lauer to set up a committee to look into the issue, according to the minutes.

Fuller said he withdrew his vote because of lingering questions about the appearance of a conflict. He declined to comment on the ethics investigation but said: "I had no concern about it one way or another.

"I still don't believe anybody did anything wrong."

Cooper filed the complaint in March, sources said, five months after he had been chosen to assume the president's post because of Murray D. Levy's departure for the General Assembly.

Lauer and Winkler did not learn of the ethics inquiry until June. Winkler, who has worked for the county for 26 years, had planned to retire at the end of this year. In December, Lauer renegotiated his contract through July 2007.

When Lauer abruptly announced in September that he planned to retire at the end of this month, whispers about an investigation spread at the County Government Building.

"He's essentially leaving a year early, and that's really a shame at a time when you need a seasoned professional," Kelly said. "My experience has been that both of these gentlemen are professionals and individuals of the highest integrity."

The ethics panel is made up of four members appointed by the commissioners and a fifth appointed by the Charles County Bar Association. In April, lawyer Irving Dross, the panel's longtime chairman, died. There are now four members.

The Ethics Commission's letter to Winkler and Lauer from June cites a section of the county's Code of Ethics that says county officials and employees shall not "participate on behalf of the county in any matter which would, to their knowledge, have a direct financial impact, as distinguished from the public generally, on them."

A hearing on the issue is scheduled for Oct. 18, less than two weeks before Lauer is set to retire.

Bruce Romer, chief administrative officer for Montgomery County and a vice president of the National Association of County Administrators, said participating in discussions about county employee benefits he also receives is part of the job description. It is up to elected officials to accept or reject his recommendations.

"Just because I receive those benefits doesn't excuse me from my obligation to make recommendations to the governing body," he said. "Part of the reason governments hire administrators is for their expertise. In all cases the final decision is with the policymakers."