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Commissioner Elder requests reimbursement for ethics investigation legal fees

Ingrid Mezo
The Gazette

Frederick County State's Attorney Scott Rolle on Tuesday absolved Emmitsburg Commissioners Art Elder and Bill O'Neil of any criminal wrongdoing related to the ethics violations they were found guilty of in April.

Rolle said after reviewing the case, he found nothing criminally prosecutable in Elder's or O'Neil's actions, though the two may have committed civil offenses.

"I've looked this over, and I've determined that there is no criminal activity involved in this," Rolle said. "Not every ethical violation is a criminal act, and that's what I've found in this case."

After the Emmitsburg Ethics Commission found Elder and O'Neil guilty of ethics violations on April 29, the town submitted the case to Rolle for further review. Town code allows punishment ranging from a $500 fine per incident to jail time for the types of offenses Elder and O'Neil were found guilty of.

The case will not go to court, according to Rolle, but he said it is possible for someone to attempt to prosecute the two through the Office of the Maryland State Prosecutor, which in part investigates misconduct by public officials. Rolle said he would be surprised if that office took a different view of the case than he does.

Earlier in the week, Elder walked out of the town's regular meeting when other town officials refused to consider his request for legal fee reimbursement for costs he incurred as a result of the ethics investigation.

Elder had submitted an invoice to the town to pay for $2,000 in legal fees he incurred after the Emmitsburg Ethics Commission found him guilty of violating town code.

Elder said he would make one more attempt before the board for reimbursement.

"It's $2,000," Elder said. "If you can't get it, then you pretty much eat it, because you're going to spend more trying to get it. But, as far as I know, I'm entitled to it."

Elder said the town is required to reimburse town employees for legal costs while fulfilling the obligations of a job as a town employee.

Recently, Mayor James Hoover approved Town Planner Michael Lucas' request for reimbursement for his attorney's fees incurred when he was called as a witness in the ethics cases against O'Neil and Elder.

Lucas never cashed the check the town issued to him; he brought it back and it was destroyed, according to Town Clerk Donna Despres.

Hoover said he approved Lucas' request and not Elder's request, because the two were "apples and oranges."

"Lucas was requested to appear before the ethics committee to serve as a witness," Hoover said. "He was not being charged or investigated. And he clearly was performing his duties and responsibilities. If Commissioner Elder had come to us prior to the Ethics Board findings, I would have felt obligated to give him the same courtesy."

Elder said he plans to continue in his position as town commissioner. He said he left the meeting Monday because he was exasperated with the mayor's treatment of him and with the commission's refusal to reimburse him for his attorney's fees.

"I am the only Emmitsburgian left in the town council," Elder said. "...Everyone else moved here from somewhere else. This is more or less a civil thing.

"The town should never have stuck their nose into it, really."

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