Charles County's Ethics Commission began formal hearings Tuesday evening to examine a conflict of interest accusation involving two of the county's highest-ranking officials.
The closed-door hearings provided the first opportunity for County Administrator Eugene Lauer and Fiscal Services Director Richard A. Winkler to respond to an ethics complaint filed this year by Board of County Commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large).
Lauer and Winkler arrived with their attorneys Tuesday to appear before the panel in the county commissioners meeting room at the county government building in La Plata. Their attorneys were expected to discuss the rules for proceedings, according to two sources familiar with the case.
The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because complaints filed with the commission are confidential.
The closed session continued late into the night, and further details on what, if any, action was taken were not available.
The county's ethics panel, chaired by the Rev. Brent T. Brooks, does not have a lot of experience handling complaints. County Attorney Roger Fink could recall one other case in the past 14 years.
The four-member commission hired prominent ethics lawyer Judson P. Garrett to conduct its preliminary investigation. La Plata lawyer Wilmer R. Ticer will serve as the commission's attorney during the hearings. Both lawyers were at Tuesday evening's meeting.
The proceedings are similar to those in a courtroom and can include testimony from witnesses and cross-examinations. At the conclusion, the commission reviews the record to determine whether the county's code of ethics has been violated.
Early during Tuesday's session, participants asked for a videocassette player and a television.
Since March, the panel has been looking into Cooper's complaint that Lauer and Winkler -- both military veterans -- had a conflict of interest when they participated in discussions about expanding retirement benefits for county employees who served in the military.
The complaint also suggested that one of the men might have pressured an unidentified county employee to fast-track discussions about the change in the pension plan, according to a source with direct knowledge of the allegations.
Cooper, Lauer and Winkler all have declined to comment on the complaint. But other commissioners have said that the six-month investigation has gone on too long and has created an atmosphere of instability and mistrust at the county government building.
Lauer and Winkler did not learn of the complaint until June and later received Garrett's preliminary report. Last month, Lauer announced his plans to retire. His last day is Oct. 31.
Cooper's initial complaint stemmed from a December 2004 commissioners meeting, when the county's Pension Plan Committee recommended a military service credit benefit. Sheriff's deputies and paramedics who have served in the military, for instance, would receive up to three years of additional credit toward retirement if they have worked in the county for more than 10 years.
Lauer and Winkler had recused themselves from voting on the issue during a Pension Plan Committee's meeting, according to minutes from the session. Lauer is eligible to receive the military service credit because of his tenure with the Prince George's County government.
A videotape of the Dec. 14 commissioners meeting obtained by The Washington Post provides fresh insight into the events leading up to the complaint from the time the policy was first proposed.
On the tape, Cooper says he is reluctant to vote for the change in policy and questions "what the hurry is." Former commissioner W. Daniel Mayer (R), now a state delegate, tells the commissioners that he feels "very uncomfortable voting on it" and that he thinks it "looks bad."
During the meeting, the issue of a conflict of interest arises, but not about Lauer and Winkler. Instead, it is commissioners who have served in the military who voice concern about voting for a benefit that could enhance their retirement packages.
County Attorney Fink tells them that the estimated cost is a "fairly insignificant amount" in terms of their duty to protect the pension fund. He adds that, in general, the commissioners "do not give up your rights as citizens by being elected to the Board of County Commissioners and the fact that from time to time certain actions you might take might affect you personally."
"I dare say most of your decisions affect you in some way personally as long as you live in the county," Fink says in the video. "I don't see this rising to an issue of conflict of interest."
Cooper appears to concur, adding, "It's no different than voting on a salary increase, and I think you've done that in the past, all of you."
The main concern Cooper expresses at the time is the lack of detailed financial information about how much the benefit expansion would cost and how many employees would be affected. An outdated survey referenced in the meeting sets the cost at $70,000 a year for roughly 20 employees.
"I'm reluctant to vote on something I don't have all the facts on," Cooper says in the video. "I think this is very abnormal. I don't know what the hurry is."
It is Mayer who seems most concerned that the commissioners would approve a benefit for a narrow group of employees. He abstains from voting after telling the commissioners, "I don't want the employees to think I'm against giving them any benefit or whatever, but I just think it looks bad."
Three of the four commissioners present voted for expanding the benefits at the meeting. But in January, commissioners rescinded their support for the change, and the issue has not been brought up again.