There is a newly released ethics commission report on the new County Executive and former Council President, Paul Clark. In July of 2009 there was an ethics review when he accidentally sent an email to a group of developers with his wife’s law firm signature, instructed two employees to delete 5,000 emails from his county office computer, and then tried to sue to keep the opinion private (more here). From the News Journal:
He stayed in president’s chair in rezoning vote involving wife’s firm
By CHAD LIVENGOOD
The News Journal – 12/3/2010
The New Castle County Ethics Commission has admonished County Executive Paul Clark for presiding over a County Council debate of an issue involving his wife’s law firm.
In February, Clark, then council president, recused himself from voting on the rezoning of the Potts Welding factory site near Newark for a developer represented by his wife’s law firm, Saul Ewing. But he remained in the president’s chair and called witnesses to testify in favor of rezoning the land on Del. 273 from industrial to commercial use. The rezoning was defeated in a 3-9 vote.
That prompted someone to file a complaint to the ethics commission, which previously had instructed Clark to recuse himself from votes on matters in which his wife, attorney Pam Scott, or her law firm are involved. The identity of complainants, who sign under the penalty of perjury, remain confidential.
“The Commission finds by clear and convincing evidence that the official adversely affected the public confidence in his impartiality by presiding over a matter involving his wife’s business,” the panel wrote in an order released Thursday.
The Ethics Commission issued Clark a letter of notification, which is how the panel can admonish public officials and tell them what they did wrong. The commission has no authority to fine or sanction Clark.
Clark was elevated from council president to the county executive’s office on Nov. 15 after former County Executive Chris Coons stepped down following his election to the U.S. Senate.
The Ethics Commission order does not identify Clark by name, as its rules prohibit it from doing so. But Clark confirmed Thursday that the order was issued against him. In a statement, Clark said the commission’s finding was a “technical violation.”
“It has been my understanding of the Ethics Code that relinquishing the chair is not necessary when my actions as president are ministerial,” Clark said. “Had I known it was in violation of the Ethics Code to preside in this instance, I would have delegated the chair immediately.”
County law prohibits elected officials from exercising their authority for the benefit of themselves or their family members. Scott is a partner in Saul Ewing’s Wilmington office.
Clark did not dispute the Ethics Commission’s evidence. In fact, he stated in writing to the panel that he “presided over [a matter] where the applicant was represented by my wife’s [business].”
Rezonings central concern
Since being elected countywide as council president in 2004, Clark has been dogged by allegations that his position has helped Scott and her law partners become the go-to firm for getting rezonings.
In this case, the application was to rezone 13.38 acres at the Potts Welding site from industrial to commercial use.
Saul Ewing attorney Richard Forsten represented a developer seeking to redevelop the former wheel manufacturing plant into a 129,000-square-foot retail shopping center. After Forsten answered questions from council members, Clark asked Land Use Department General Manager Dave Culver to speak, according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by The News Journal.
“I just think it’s important to get on the record what your department’s position was and then have a chance if anyone wants to ask you a question,” Clark told Culver.
Culver, who now works for Clark, said his department favored the rezoning because the Ogletown area east of the Newark city limits on Del. 273 has been transforming from industrial to commercial and office uses.
The county’s planning board was split 4-4 on the issue, with some members voting against the rezoning because of a belief that the land should remain industrial. At the time of the council vote, Clark said he was recusing himself from voting because Forsten works at “my wife’s firm.”
Ethics Commission members do not comment on opinions and orders they issue. Commission members Miguel Gonzales, James Keeley, Eugene McCoy and Gerald Turkel voted in favor of the sanction, while commissioner Vincent White voted against the decision, which was issued Oct. 13 but not made public until Thursday. The panel has one vacancy, and Chairman Thomas Collins Sr. did not vote on the sanction.
During Clark’s last month as council president, he took additional steps to recuse himself from matters involving his wife’s clients. For example, at an Oct. 26 meeting, he turned over the gavel to Council President Pro Tem Penrose Hollins to run a vote on the refund of taxes to one of Scott’s former clients just to “play it safe.”
A few days after Clark became county executive, he issued an order instructing employees to not involve him in any matters that his wife or Saul Ewing have before the county.
Democrats mired in issue
Clark’s conflict-of-interest issue increasingly has become a political problem for him and fellow Democrats on County Council.
Councilman Timothy Sheldon, a Pike Creek Democrat, is running for the council president’s seat against former state Rep. Tom Kovach, a Brandywine Hundred Republican.
If elected, Sheldon has vowed to seek an Ethics Commission opinion on how Clark’s administration can continue to interact with Scott and her law firm without creating the appearance of favoritism.
New Castle County Republican Party Chairman Michael Fleming seized on the Ethics Commission ruling Thursday, saying Clark has brought an “embarrassing ethical circus” to county government.
“The Ethics Commission’s condemnation of County Executive Paul Clark makes abundantly clear why we desperately need new, independent leadership in our county government,” Fleming said in a statement.
Here is the full NCC GOP statement from their website:
The Ethics Commission’s condemnation of County Executive Paul Clark makes abundantly clear why we desperately need new, independent leadership in our county government. Sadly, this isn’t the first rebuke of Mr. Clark by the Ethics Commission but just the latest in an appalling litany of ethical dysfunction: the constant specter of conflicts of interest, refusing to make council proceedings more available to the public, forcing elected officials to file FOIA requests for public information – and now this striking denunciation of the former council president for “adversely affect[ing] the public confidence in his impartiality by presiding over a matter involving his wife’s business.”
Yet Mr. Clark’s hand-picked successor Councilman Tim Sheldon says he is proud of the fact no one on council has gone to jail in the last six years. Is that their standard for ethical excellence? It is time to end this embarrassing ethical circus by electing Tom Kovach as county council president on January 13 and beginning the process of restoring integrity and accountability in our county government.