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Attorney, resident attack ethics board

Chris Patterson
The Gazette

(2/10) Emmitsburg Ethics Committee Chairman Ted Brennan took a couple of hard hits at the town's meeting Monday when a resident and an attorney asked for his resignation and termination of the committee's investigation of two town commissioners.

Citing a conflict of interest and a personal vendetta by Brennan, resident Cathy Bodin made her request during the public comments at the end of an otherwise fairly quiet meeting.

Following on the heels of her statement was a request by town commission President Bill O'Neil's attorney asking for the committee to be disbanded until rules and procedures for operating the committee could be put in place.

Emmitsburg's Ethics Committee is investigating O'Neil and fellow Commissioner Art Elder for allegations they inappropriately used the influence of their offices.

David B. Runkle, operator of Custom Image Printing, has accused the men of using their influence to have the printing brokerage he operates investigated because it competes with a printing company owned by Elder's cousin. The owners of Silo Hill Car Wash also submitted a letter with similar allegations against the two town commissioners.

In her comments, Bodin accused Brennan of pursuing a "political vendetta" against the commissioners and asked for Brennan's resignation "on the grounds that the Ethics Committee is investigating the matter in an unprofessional manner."

Bodin said Brennan "leaked" information about the investigation under way by the committee to the media before O'Neil and Elder were notified they were under investigation. She said confidential materials relating to the investigation were also left for the commissioners on their desks in an open area.

In December, The Gazette reported Brennan's acknowledgement that O'Neil and Elder were being investigated after Runkle released the information on his complaint. At that time, the investigation had been ongoing for about two months, but neither O'Neil nor Elder had been advised they were subjects of the investigation.

Bodin went on to state that the committee's actions were illegal under Maryland statutes and an embarrassment to the town. Additionally, she argued a conflict of interest existed for Brennan because Elder defeated him in a race for town commissioner in April 2002.

"At worst, this is this is a question of malice of forethought in pursuing political rivals ... If you don't know how to conduct an investigation perhaps you should not be doing it," she said. Brennan, who was not at the meeting, would not comment on this story when reached by phone Tuesday. He referred all questions to Ethics Committee attorney Harry T. DeMoll of Frederick. DeMoll could not be reached for comment by The Gazette's press time.

Immediately following Bodin, O'Neil's attorney, Rosemary McDermott of Thurmont, opened her remarks by stressing that the residents of Emmitsburg should be "scared to death," citing first that Brennan was not given any policies or procedures under which to operate the committee.

"To keep your government from being arbitrary and capricious, procedures need to be in place," she said.

McDermott argued that if there are no procedures in Emmitsburg, the town should be following the procedures of the state. That process includes a requirement that any ethics complaint be signed and under oath.

Her second point was that specific information about the investigation was given to the press, but the state requires the identities of those involved be kept confidential unless the individuals give permission to be identified in writing.

"So where are we now? We are stuck with a major problem and on behalf of my client, I am asking that this committee and this investigation be disbanded until procedures are in place to protect not just my client but all the citizens of Emmitsburg," she said.

O'Neil was absent from the meeting on business and Elder would not comment.

Mayor James Hoover said Tuesday that the committee received counsel from town attorney John Clapp and now has its own attorney.

"To best of my knowledge, both attorneys have advised the committee of what rules, practices and policy they should be following based on what's in the town code or not in code," he said.

Hoover said that he is not considering disbanding the committee or asking for the resignation of any member of the committee. He said he would talk to attorney Clapp about the allegations of conflicts of interest.

Hoover also stressed that the Ethics Committee was re-established in Sept. 2003, long before the complaints were received and the investigation started, and that Elder voted to approve Brennan as the committee's chair.

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