Brown ethics hearing: plenty of action, no resolution

It was supposed to be a hearing on a complaint filed by former Fayette County Commissioner Robert Horgan on two issues relating to Commissioner Steve Brown that Horgan maintained violated the county’s ethics ordinance. But the Wednesday hearing was postponed until Jan. 23 after ethics board member Dan Langford made a failed motion to dismiss the charges, and the alternate board member was unable to take his place at the meeting after Langford promptly resigned his position.

Horgan in the complaint alleged that Brown violated county ordinances by issuing inappropriate orders to a county employee related to the disclosure of the names of county manager candidates, by disclosing information discussed by the board in executive session and violating attorney client privilege pertaining to potential legal action by which the county could sue itself.

The meeting was conducted by Chairman Sheila Huddleston and board members Scott Rowland and Brooks Mayor Dan Langford.

Langford opened the meeting by saying, “A person who cannot separate personal opinion from such serious business as this is an intellectual lightweight.” But before Langford could continue his comment was interrupted by Brown, asking if such testimony was being allowed. Langford continued, saying that he was in the process of making a motion and was attempting to it into context.

“We’re not here tonight to consider observed patterns of behavior. We’re here to consider two specific acts alleged in the complaint before us and to determine whether Mr. Brown violated the county ethics ordinance,” Langford said. “The rest of it is just clutter around the main issue.”

Langford then noted his 15 years in elected office and his belief that he could bring particular insight to the decisions that must be made, decisions that are sometimes unpopular. Langford said he knows what it feels like to be the only member of a board to stand alone on an issue.

Langford added that while he could not conceive of a situation where he would not heed the advice of his town attorney, he did understand the need to be totally sure of the circumstances surrounding a given issue, “particularly in as politically-charged a situation as the one underlying this complaint was, a redistricting issue.”

Brown again interrupted Langford’s comments asking, “Are we trying this right now. It sounds like we are rendering judgment. Is there a reason for this?”

Huddleston responded, saying there was a reason for Langford’s comments.

Brown responded, saying he was worried about an ethics official swaying the other two members of the board before any testimony is presented.

“When you call the respondent a lightweight I think we’ve got a serious problem,” Brown said.

Langford responded saying, “I said any man who can’t separate personal opinion from serious business,” but Brown interrupted again, asking who Langford was referencing.

“I’m talking about myself. I’m talking about anyone on an ethics board who cannot separate opinion about somebody from the serious business of the ethics board is a lightweight,” Langford repeated. “I wasn’t calling you a lightweight. I was referring to any member of this board who cannot separate personal opinions about somebody from the serious business of an ethics complaint is a lightweight. If you’ll allow me to finish.”

Langford went on to say that he believed Brown did not direct any (county employee) to do anything and that Brown’s conversation with county staff amounted to a polite request, not an order.

“Therefore, I make a motion that the first charge against Mr. Brown be dismissed without further consideration,” Langford said. “As regards to the second charge, I rather seriously question the wisdom of calling the Attorney General when any issue pops up. But if I were to find myself in such a complicated and politically-charged issue as this one was, I too would want to be absolutely sure that my governmental body was doing what was absolutely right, was following the law. And if I could gain assurance in no other way then I might do exactly the same thing in running a question by the Attorney General. Therefore, I can’t find ethical fault in Mr. Brown’s action in the second charge either. I therefore move that the second charge against him be dismissed.”

Langford said his statements and his subsequent motions constituted his opinion in the matter.

Huddleston then called for a second to the motions, but no second was made and the motions died. But before the business of the hearing could move forward Langford made another statement. He said it was clear from Brown’s letters to the editor that Brown wanted him to step down from the ethics board.

“In addition, I’ve had two emails this week from other present commissioners asking me to step down from this board. I don’t think anything is served by playing the game of making commissioners accept my resignation. I herewith tender my resignation effective immediately. Thank you very much for the opportunity to serve,” Langford said.

At that point, and with only two sitting ethics board members remaining, Huddleston asked ethics board alternate Larris Marks if she was prepared to take Langford’s place for the hearing. Marks declined, stating that she had not seen the complaint and was not prepared to hear it on that occasion.

With that, Huddleston rescheduled that hearing for 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 23 in the commission chambers.

Horgan after the meeting said Langford could have withdrawn without making the motion and rendering the decision he made.

“I think it tainted the process,” Horgan said.

Asked after the meeting about his comments, Langford said, “There was such a cloud over me. I felt like my integrity had been impugned. I don’t have to like a guy or not like him to say he’s guilty or not guilty. I felt I had to do it the way I did to show I had integrity. I thought the motions would pass and then I would have resigned at the end of the meeting.”

Langford said he felt like he had been on trial for the past few weeks. And while he declined to say which two commissioners sent the emails he referenced earlier, Langford said both were thoughtful and polite and both asked him to consider resigning because both commissioners believed that an elected official should not serve on the ethics board.