June 2, 2004

Former councilman Richard Abbott said the federal indictments of County Executive Tom Gordon, chief administrative officer Sherry Freebery and ranking executive assistant Janet Smith address only some of the corruption in county government and urged County Council to launch its own investigation to uncover a fuller picture of its extent.

"There's a lot you already know about that has been going on in this government for years," he testified before Council, sitting in emergency session on June 1, unanimously enacted six ordinances which Council president Christopher Coons said would "put in place some additional controls" over the Gordon administration and, at least partly, "restore the confidence of the general public."

Abbott said that the indictments handed up by the federal grand jury on May 26 necessarily were limited to allegations which U.S. Attorney Colm Connolly feels he can convince a petit jury are "beyond a reasonable doubt." County Council, on the other hand, would be required "to adhere to a much [less restrictive] standard," he said.

His remarks held particular significance because it was the alleged use of county employees during working hours to campaign against his re-election in 2002 which apparently gave impetus to the grand jury investigation led by U.S. Attorney Colm Connolly which led to the indictments. That allegation is part of one of several 'schemes' cited in the indictments.

Political observers recognized Abbott as being a proverbial 'thorn in the side' of the Gordon administration and others in county government before his primary election bid to secure the Republican nomination to run for re-election was narrowly defeated. He has since continued in that role as a lawyer representing developer Frank Acierno in several lawsuits against the county and its Department of Land Use.

The enacted ordinances all expire in 60 days, which means they must be renewed, modified or allowed to die before Council takes its customary August recess. In summary, they:

Freeze all executive branch contingency funds except the one used to finance Ethics Commission activities, add the county auditor to the process for reviewing budgetary transfers, and require that Council and the auditor be given seven-days advance notice of any spending for outside legal services.

Reduce the limit on line-item budget variations to $5,000 from $20,000 and ban creation of any new civil service-type positions without Council approval.

Reduce the threshold at which Council approval of service contracts and purchases not subject to competitive bidding is required from $50,000 to $10,000.

Require that Council be notified about and the auditor review contracts to retain outside legal counsel while empowering Council to obtain such services without approval by the executive branch.

Require Council approval of county-financed legal representation for employees when the cost of that service reaches $50,000 and, after that, at increments of $100,000 and require that such expenditures be repaid if the individual pleads or is found guilty of a crime.

Require advance notice to Council and the auditor of any hiring, firing, promotion or transfer of any employee, except temporary seasonal employees.

A proposed resolution which would have urged the state legislature to establish a process for suspending, with pay, any non-elected county appointee under felony indictment was withdrawn when its sponsor, Councilman Robert Weiner, was unable to obtain a colleague to second it. Weiner said he will make such a proposal on his own behest.

All six of the enacted resolutions were initially sponsored by Coons, but the other members of Council signed on as co-sponsors before they were introduced. Each passed with six votes.

Councilman William Tansey, who was on vacation, was recorded as absent in the official tally, but listened to and spoke to the session by conference telephone. Coons said the law is not clear about whether a Council member is permitted to vote by telephone and it was decided not to test that. It was the first time that Council used that method of participation. Tansey said that, if he were present, he also would have voted 'aye' on all six measures.

Councilwoman Patty Powell delayed her departure on a family trip to attend the session. Tansey, a Republican, is the person who defeated Abbott. Powell beat former councilman Christopher Roberts in a 2002 Democratic primary, also with allegedly illegal help from Gordon and Freebery.

At an open executive committee meeting before the Council session Coons took umbrage over an announcement by Representative Gregory Lavelle that he will introduce state legislation to establish a commission to monitor county government's expenditures and personnel actions until Gordon's term expires in January, 2005, and a taskforce to review the structure of county government and make recommendations for possible changes by May, 2005.

Coons said the General Assembly's stepping in at this point implied that County Council was incapable of dealing effectively with the present situation. "It [would] override the prerogative of Council to act first," he said. Because county government is a creature of the state, state law takes precedence over county law.

After the Council session, Coons told Delaforum that Lavelle's move did not influence the outcome of the session. "I had the six votes [to approve the ordinances] going in," he said. Because they were emergency legislation introduced with minimal public notice, passage of the ordinances required five affirmative votes

Abbott characterized the measures as "a Band-Aid or window dressing" and said they are "not going to accomplish anything substantively."

"There is more corrective action that is needed," he said, adding that, in addition to using "the power you already have" to investigate the extent of corruption, Council should seek Gordon's impeachment by the state legislature.

None of the three indicted persons has been arrested. Gordon, Freebery and, presumably, Smith are continuing to conduct business in a close-to-normal manner.

Councilman Penrose Hollins disputed Abbott's claim that Council ignored seven and a half years of misdeeds by the Gordon administration. "We've all heard rumors, [but] there was no general knowledge," Hollins said.

Coons, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to succeed Gordon as county executive and is opposed by Freebery in that effort, also denied charges that Council is late in assuming a role vis--vis alleged corruption.

"Many of the issues have been rumored," Coons acknowledged, but he said some of allegations in the indictment "were news to me." And, he added, "this is not the last you will be hearing from County Council on these issues."

Acknowledging that the federal grand jury probe had been general knowledge for nearly two years. Coons said that he was "very reluctant to have this body (County Council) conduct an investigation" concurrently. He did not comment directly on Abbott's call for starting one now.

County Attorney Timothy Mullaney challenged, albeit mildly, Council's responding the the indictments with emergency ordinances in emergency session. He said the measures accomplished nothing that could not have been done by following the normal legislative process. Some of their content -- particularly provisions involving employment of outside lawyers -- "has been debated at great length," he said.

Ronald Morris, the county's chief financial officer, pledged that "there will be no attempt to subvert them (the ordinances)."

The emergency session, which began at 5:15 p.m. and lasted about 100 minutes, drew a near capacity crowd to Council chambers in the Redding Building. Three uniformed county police officers were stationed along the wall, but the crowd, which obviously included both Gordon administration supporters and opponents, was orderly throughout the proceedings.

At the outset, Coons ruled out any discussion of the indictments as such. "We are not here this evening to consider guilt or innocence," he said.

2004. All rights reserved.

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