Charles County's Ethics Commission has hired two outside lawyers with expertise in local government and ethics to join an investigation that has lasted at least six months and shaken the highest levels of county government.
The commission sought outside legal counsel after it received a complaint from commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large) involving two top county employees.
According to the retainer letters, the commission determined -- at the request of County Attorney Roger L. Fink -- that Fink had "a professional conflict of interest in continuing to represent the commission."
The decision is in line with county ethics procedures that allow for the hiring of outside lawyers in cases involving the county commissioners because Fink is the attorney for the Board of Commissioners.
One of the outside lawyers, Judson P. Garrett, is a former general counsel to the Maryland General Assembly who helped draft the state ethics law. Garrett also represented Montgomery County's ethics panel in 2003 during its dispute with Charles A. Moose, the police chief at the time, over his plans to write a book about the Washington-area sniper saga.
The other, Wilmer R. Ticer, is a La Plata lawyer who has worked with Prince George's County municipalities.
The lawyers have agreed to work for the county at reduced rates of $150 and $200 per hour, respectively. Information on how many hours the lawyers have logged was not immediately available.
In March, Cooper asked the commission to determine 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 retirement benefits for county workers who have served in the military, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the complaint.
Commissioners Al Smith (R-Waldorf) and Candice Quinn Kelly (R-La Plata) have criticized the way the situation has been handled, saying it has gone on too long and alienated two valuable county employees.
Last week, Cooper criticized his fellow commissioners for speaking out about the investigation. Their comments, he said, could interfere with the confidential proceedings.
"I'm disappointed with any commissioner saying anything at this time," Cooper said. "Even though we may have differences of opinion, I don't want to see anything that would influence the judgment one way or another."
The initial complaint stemmed from a November 2004 meeting of the county's Pension Plan Committee. Lauer and Winkler recused themselves from voting on the issue, according to minutes from the session. Lauer would already have received such a military benefit from his tenure in Prince George's County.
The two men, who declined to comment, received copies of the complaint and notice from the Ethics Commission in June. Lauer announced his retirement last month. His last day is Oct. 31.
Kelly, who was not a commissioner at the time the complaint was filed, told supporters in a letter last week, "Our county would be far better today" if Cooper had "called Mr. Winkler and Mr. Lauer into his office for a fair and candid meeting."
Kelly wrote that she respects the role of the Ethics Commission, but if "used improperly such actions foster an atmosphere of distrust and can be devastating to the operations of government."
Fink and Cooper said they could not confirm the existence of any complaint. But in general, Cooper said, "if you're in a leadership position and you suspect something is wrong, you should have it investigated. That's your job."
The county's Ethics Commission has five members, one of whom is appointed by the county Bar Association. The panel's longtime chairman, Irving Dross, hired Garrett sometime before Dross died in April. Lawyer Patrick Devine was appointed to replace Dross. The Rev. Brent T. Brooks is the chairman.
The Ethics Commission was established after the passage of the county's ethics law in 1982. Fink said he could remember only one complaint in the past 14 years.
An investigation can be triggered by individual requests or commission complaints. After the commission determines that an issue is relevant to its duties, the county attorney typically gathers information from interviews and documents.
In cases involving a county commissioner, the ethics panel's guidelines are explicit: "The commission or the attorney must decide whether there is a conflict of interest for the attorney or whether an 'outside' attorney is needed to advise the commission" because the county attorney is employed by the Board of Commissioners.
It appears in this case that Garrett was hired to prepare the preliminary report. From there, the commission notifies the subject of the complaint.
In the next phase, the guidelines call for a hearing, which is scheduled for Oct. 18, according to sources who requested anonymity because such confidential proceedings involve sensitive personnel matters.
The hearing can include witness testimony and cross-examination. For that reason, the commission in this case probably would have wanted to hire a lawyer separate from the one who conducted its initial investigation.
A range of outcomes could emerge from this month's hearing. The parties could settle. The commission could conclude that the county's ethics law was not violated.
If the panel finds a violation, it can censure or remove the subjects from their positions or suspend salaries and other compensation.
All decisions must be made by a majority vote.