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The Tentacle


July 27, 2004

The High and The Mighty

John W. Ashbury

It had to happen. Anytime anyone creates a "holier-than-thou" position for oneself, a fall from grace is sure to occur.

And thus it is with John L. "Lennie" Thompson, president of the Frederick Board of County Commissioners. He has become mired in the fly-paper of ethical conflict and standards.

And it comes on the heels of the brouhaha over the use of a county computer and county telephones by Commissioner Vice President Mike Cady to promote a weightlifting championship at Mount Saint Mary's University in Emmitsburg.

It seems that Mr. Thompson is using his office in Winchester Hall to conduct the business of his private law practice. The Gazette reported last week that he won't apologize for violating the county policy which states in no uncertain terms that county computers, telephones, cell phones, pagers and email services are to be used for "county government business only."

And just what is his excuse for violating county rules? Mr. Thompson says that the government salary of $30,000 is insufficient to meet his needs and he must conduct his private law practice to make ends meet.

But he knew when he sought the position of county commissioner that it required full-time participation for part-time pay.

His advocacy for a halt to any form of development must have skewered his thinking. For now, six years after being elected, he sees nothing wrong with using taxpayers' funds to advance and enhance his private law practice.

Sure, calls from clients to his office in Winchester Hall are unavoidable. He can't control who calls and what the calls are about. But he does have a very competent executive assistant in Sharon Hale, who handles with great aplomb the job of screening his calls.

Mrs. Hale said yesterday that she has not taken a call in Winchester Hall for Mr. Thompson dealing with his law practice. She did indicate, however, that some people call his direct line and, therefore, she wouldn't know if it is county business or having to do with his private law practice.

But if Mr. Thompson uses county equipment and resources to return those calls concerning his legal practice, then he is definitely in violation of the rules, if not some law or ordinance.

Last year Mr. Thompson asked the commissioners to submit legislation to the General Assembly that would require any commissioner, who received a campaign contribution from someone who later had an issue with the county, to recuse himself or herself from any discussion or vote which would effect or affect that individual.

Seems that he had reversed the old tenet about the innate goodness of people and assumes everyone is a crook.

Fortunately, Gov. Robert Ehrlich had the good sense to veto that legislation when it came across his desk.

Setting oneself up as a paragon of virtue, a moral compass, above reproach, usually ends with a fall from the pinnacle.

Despite his efforts to thwart growth, it continues to happen, although at a much slower pace. But even with his demagogic efforts to put the blame for every ill the county faces squarely at the feet of developers, no one has ever accused Mr. Thompson of being unethical.

That is until now.

No sensible citizen will look at Mr. Thompson's arrogant denial of wrongdoing and actually believe him on this one. There is a blatant attempt to circumvent to "law," or excuse one's behavior with a flip of the wrist.

Mr. Cady, on the other hand, has freely admitted that he used the county's telephone and email system to promote the weightlifting championship at Mount Saint Mary's University. And yes, he says, Marvin Ausherman, a local builder/developer, was the chairman of the fundraising committee.

Maybe that is what has some up in arms. Mr. Ausherman has contributed heavily in past campaigns for county commissioner to both winning and losing candidates. But, would those who won actually "favor" Mr. Ausherman in his dealing with the commissioners, only God knows.

Perhaps Mr. Cady's transgression here was in being connected in any way with "raising funds" for the event. He previously sought an opinion from the county's Ethics Commission about raising money for his weightlifting school. He was told he couldn't, so he closed the school.

Then Dr. Jack Dale, former county school superintendent, offered to allow Mr. Cady to store his weightlifting equipment in a warehouse owned and operated by the Frederick County Public Schools.

Again Mr. Cady sought an opinion from the ethics panel and was told that he couldn't accept that offer either because of his position as liaison to the Board of Education, and the fact that he was voting on funding for FCPS. The ethics group said he could recuse himself on those matters and accept Dr. Dale's offer.

Mr. Cady moved his weightlifting equipment from the warehouse.

Now the Ethics Commission is investigating whether or not Mr. Cady should be admonished for using the county phone and email system for the Emmitsburg event.

But this is entirely different from what Mr. Thompson has allegedly been doing. The commissioners' president has - according to press reports - used county equipment and facilities for his own personal gain, and, thereby, putting money in his pocket. Even if the amount is small, Mr. Thompson should be setting a higher standard of conduct that this seems to indicate.

It will be interesting to see what the Ethics Commission has to say about this.



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