My visit before the Washington County Ethics Commission – Part 1

On Wednesday morning, November 15, I drove from my home in North Potomac to Washington County, arriving in downtown Hagerstown at approximately 8:45 a.m. I parked my car on West Washington Street nearby the County office building, paid the parking meter and walked east on West Washington Street to Public Square Cafe, where I purchased a cup of coffee.

I left the coffee shop at 9:02 a.m., turned right, walked west on West Washington Street and entered the County Administration Building at 100 West Washington Street around 9:07 a.m. A Washington County deputy sheriff was stationed in the front of the building and warmly greeted me. The law enforcement officer checked my belongings and cleared me to enter the County office building.

The deputy sheriff directed me to an interior lobby, which is located outside of the county administrator’s office. I opened the interior lobby door and pressed the electronic intercom system, notifying a County official (Krista Hart) that I had arrived. Ms. Hart politely requested that I wait inside the interior lobby until the Ethics Commision was ready to hear my testimony.

Precisely at 9:30 a.m., County Administrator Rob Slocum’s executive assistant, Krista Hart, opened the door to the interior lobby where I was seated and greeted with me a pleasant handshake. Immediately after I entered the executive office suite, I was warmly greeted by the chair of the Ethics Commission, J. Emmet Burke, who escorted me past Ms. Hart’s desk and down a long hallway and finally into the last conference room on the right.

Mr. Burke escorted me to my seat at the conference table (the seat on the left front side of the table) and introduced to me the members of the Ethics Commission.

Seated to my immediate left was John Louderback. Allen Swope was seated to Mr. Louderback’s left. On the right side of the table, attorney Brian Kane was seated across from Mr. Swope.

(Mr. Kane was, at one time, a partner with D. Bruce Poole – Poole & Kane, P.A. – until the two attorneys professionally separated. Mr. Kane’s former partner, Mr. Poole, had, at one time, provided legal representation to Washington County Commissioner LeRoy Myers).

Deputy Washington County Attorney Kirk Downey was seated to Mr. Kane’s left, opposite me. Mr. Burke, the Commission’s chairman, was seated to my right and to Mr. Downey’s left, at the head of the table. Two female County staffers were seated at the end of the long conference table, presumably documenting my testimony and taking the minutes.

After I was seated at the table I thanked the members of the Commission for their time.

I then removed my laptop from inside my laptop case and opened the screen. I also placed a few handwritten notes on the table in front of me. In addition to removing my laptop from my laptop case, I removed my palm-sized digital handheld voice recorder from my left suit jacket pocket and placed the device on the table in front of me.

I turned on my digital voice recorder.

Mr. Downey, the County attorney who advises the Ethics Commission, inquired whether I would be recording the meeting. I responded that it was my intention to record my testimony before the Commission to ensure that the session was on the record.

Mr. Downey informed me that I was not allowed to record the session and vehemently objected to the use of my recorder. Moreover, Mr. Burke said that the meeting was not subject to the Maryland Open Meetings Act and denied me from using my digital recorder while testifying.

Attorney Brian Kane announced that he did not consent to a recording. Mr. Swope, a retired Maryland State trooper, exclaimed aloud, “Hear, hear!” in response to Mr. Kane refusing consent to be recorded. Mr. Swope made a few audible sighs and loud groans after exclaiming his agreement with Mr. Kane.

I informed the Commission that I did not feel comfortable with having my testimony off the record.

The Commission members and Mr. Downey informed me that I would not be able to proceed with my oral testimony if my digital voice recorder was recording the conversation. I hesitated for a few moments. I told the Commission members, “This will be a problem.”

Eventually I acquiesced to Mr. Downey’s stipulations and removed my digital voice recorder from the conference-room table, placing the device inside of my left suit jacket pocket. Several members of the Commission then demanded to know if I had turned off my digital recorder. I confirmed with the members of the Commission that my digital voice recorder was in the off position.

Before I began my testimony, I requested that the County’s attorney present, Kirk Downey, recuse himself from the discussion and leave the room.

I explained to Mr. Downey and to the members of the Commission that Mr. Downey represents the Board of County Commissioners and advises the panel on how to author a legal decision. Considering that one of my ethics complaints targets Commissioners President Terry Baker, Mr. Downey’s presence in the room would be inappropriate.

Moreover, Mr. Downey’s office was partially responsible for releasing the incomplete September 19 press release that failed to inform the public that Commissioner Myers did indeed violate County policy in his interactions with former Assistant County Administrator Sarah Lankford Sprecher.

Members of the Commission were seemingly baffled and left somewhat incredulous. Mr. Downey questioned why I wanted him to recuse himself from the proceeding. Mr. Kane explained to me that Mr. Downey only advises the Commission and does not contribute to the decision the Commission will inevitably author.

Chairman Burke eventually requested I step outside of the room so the Commission could discuss my request for Mr. Downey to recuse himself from the proceeding.

At approximately 9:37 a.m., Chairman Burke escorted me outside of the conference room and into the interior lobby where I initially waited when first arriving that morning. While waiting, I sent out four tweets on my personal Twitter account, describing the situation that was transpiring.

9:40 am.

9:40 a.m.

9:41 a.m.

9:42 a.m.

Mr. Burke returned to the lobby at approximately 9:49 a.m., requesting to speak with me in a separate conference room nearby County Administrator Rob Slocum’s personal office.

Mr. Burke escorted me to a small room adjacent to Mr. Slocum’s office. It was inside the small conference room that Mr. Burke said I could not return to the conference room unless I consent to leave behind my electronic devices – my cellular phone, my laptop and my digital voice recorder – and hand over to a County staffer.

I expressed my severe reservations with Mr. Burke’s request. I was uncomfortable leaving my electronic devices outside of my sight. However, I reasoned at that time that I would comply with Chairman Burke’s request to turn over my electronic devices. (It was my goal to speak before the Commission after driving an hour that morning to do so.)

Mr. Burke watched me remove my cellular phone from my pants pocket as well as my digital voice recorder from my left suit jacket pocket, placing the devices inside my laptop case. I expressed concern again with Mr. Burke and noted that my testimony notes were written on my laptop and that I would like to bring said laptop into the conference room. Mr. Burke denied my request to bring my laptop into the room at that time. I was not provided full access to my testimony notes.

Krista Hart, County Administrator Rob Slocum’s executive assistant, was responsible for handling my electronic devices during my oral testimony before the Commission.

My cellular phone was not turned off; it does, however, require a passcode to gain access to the home screen. My digital recorder and laptop could easily have been tampered with and manipulated while I was providing testimony before the Commission.

Chairman Burke did not, at the time, offer me an independent County staffer to temporarily hold my devices while I was testifying. Furthermore, Mr. Burke rushed me back into the conference room immediately after I handed over my electronic devices.

Part II of my Ethics Commission testimony will be released shortly.

 

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About Ryan
Ryan Miner is Editor in Chief, Founder and Publisher of AMinerDetail.com. Miner is the sole reporter and columnist at AMinerDetail.com, covering Maryland news, politics, business, education, national, state and local government. Miner is the host of A Miner Detail Podcast.

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