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Ethics panel finds Hooper did no wrong

Chris Patterson
The Gazette

(1/14) The Thurmont Ethics Commission reported this week that it could not find any evidence that Commissioner Wayne Hooper, or any town employee, violated the town's ethics ordinance in the matter of Hooper's unpaid utility bills last summer.

Ethics commissioners wrote in their report that even if the allegations made in resident John Ashbury's complaint were true, there "would not be a violation of the ethics ordinance in its current form."

The Ethics Commission consists of chair Melissa Oland and members Dawn Hawes and John Ford.

Town attorney Debra Borden said the ethics commissioners came to that conclusion when they determined the ordinance was "inadequate to deal with most things ... is very short and does not address a whole lot." She described the ordinance as "very sparse," leaving the commission with "limited information about what to do."

Hooper said Wednesday that he has a copy of the report, and agreed with the commission's findings. He said he hopes the matter is now closed.

"I concur [with the findings], and I felt that way from the beginning, that nothing was done wrong, and there was no wrongdoing," he said. "It's just a shame it had to go through all these channels, but that's the way it is."

The report, provided to The Gazette by Borden, had all names removed as required by law, Borden said. In the text of the report, however, it is clear that references to a "commissioner" mean Hooper, who was the only commissioner included in the inquiry.

In August 2004, Ashbury requested that the Ethics Commission investigate Hooper and the town government in its handling of Hooper's overdue utility bills.

The Gazette reported in July that Hooper had been in debt to the town for $3,000 in electric, water and sewer utilities. Other town residents with overdue bills had their electricity turned off during that time, but Hooper's power stayed on.

At the time, Hooper had not made regular payments for at least three years, with no payment for nearly one year.

When the mayor and commissioners learned of the debt -- which was paid in June -- Mayor Martin A. Burns requested that attorney N. Lynn Board investigate to determine if Hooper had used his position to avoid having his utilities cut off.

Board's report, dated July 26, stated that Hooper did not use his influence, but merely benefited from mistakes made by the town office in processing the bills.

In the closing of that report, she wrote that the Board of Commissioners should use the Ethics Commission for any further questions on the matter.

Ashbury has said all along that his ethics complaint was sent because he had concerns the town attorney -- who is paid by the town -- had a potential conflict of interest investigating a town commissioner.

But the ethics commissioners concluded that it was not a conflict of interest for Board to conduct the investigation, and that it was not even clear whether attorney Board was covered by the town's ethics code.

Ashbury also requested an investigation of Hooper and the town government, and referred specifically to Hooper's position as the liaison to the electric utility. The ethics commissioners responded that they found no violation of the code based on attorney Board's investigation as the foundation of their conclusion.

Ashbury said he was most concerned that the Ethics Commission only used the attorney's report, did not undertake an independent investigation, and did not interview anyone other than himself.

He said he thought he made it quite clear that the commission needed to interview everyone. That was particularly important as he understood that attorney Board did not investigate the matter from an ethics perspective.

In closing the report, the commission stated that the town's ethics code is "deficient and should be significantly improved," and that the members plan to work with the town's Charter/Code Review Committee to suggest modifications to address the deficiencies.

Final recommendations included support for the creation of a town utility collection policy, suggested by the attorney, and a suggestion the town write personnel policies, procedures and guidelines that state "no person or persons, regardless of position shall receive special treatment."

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