- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A Welcome woman filed an ethics complaint against Charles County Commissioner Reuben B. Collins II (D) on Monday afternoon, alleging that he should recuse himself from matters involving The St. Charles Cos., the Waldorf-based developer of the county’s largest planned community, because of his affiliation with a law firm representing the company.
In particular, Cheryl Thomas took issue with Collins’ vote last week against hiring an outside attorney to compile, for county government, a summary of zoning Docket 90 at the request of County Attorney Barbara L. Holtz, who said the file has become so large and unwieldy that county staff members need a professional summary.
The other four commissioners voted to hire outside counsel to review Docket 90, which governs the St. Charles planned residential and commercial development in Waldorf. It was opened in 1972 to record land rezoning actions that created its original 7,030-acre area, according to a summary provided to the commissioners by county staff members.
Thomas objected to Collins’ vote because the law firm he works at, The Scott Law Group in La Plata, represents The St. Charles Cos. in Docket 90 matters.
“Commissioner Collins argued that [the Docket 90 review] could be done internally and questioned why it needed to be done at all. He should have recused himself from that discussion because he works for Steven Scott. Why didn't he recuse himself? Whose best interests was he looking out for — the county's citizens or Steven Scott's law firm?” Thomas wrote in her complaint, a copy of which she forwarded to the Maryland Independent.
But in a Tuesday interview, Collins said that while he works out of the law group’s offices, he is not an employee and that there is no conflict of interest. Furthermore, Collins said, he does recuse himself from matters directly involving the firm or its principal attorney, Steve Scott.
Collins is “of counsel” at the firm, meaning that he is not a partner or an associate there, Collins said. In his case, he pays to use space at the firm’s offices, he said, a relationship confirmed Tuesday by Scott.
“Essentially, he rents space from us,” Scott said.
Collins said he has scrupulously sought to avoid conflicts of interest.
“I’ve actually asked the county attorney to do a, I’m seeking an opinion from the ethics commission because I just want the citizens to be clear that I would not do anything to violate the public trust,” Collins said. “When Steve and I discussed the idea of me being of counsel, the first contact we made was with the Maryland bar to make sure there would not be any type of ethics issue. We received verbally, from the bar, as long as we discussed and there was no monetary involvement or anything, it would not be considered a conflict.”
Holtz could not publicly confirm whether Collins sought her advice on the matter, or even the existence of the complaint itself, because ethics complaints are confidential until they are resolved, county spokeswoman Crystal Hunt said Tuesday.
Christine Pham, chairwoman of the Maryland State Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics, said Tuesday that consultations with her board also are confidential; in any event, Collins might have consulted with someone else at the bar because many bodies handle ethics issues.
For her part, Thomas said her concerns about Collins stem from a controversy about the National Prayer Garden, a large retreat complex proposed for Welcome and fiercely opposed by Thomas.
“My interest, my suspicions about Commissioner Collins started last year, way back with this prayer garden, when it looked like it might go in down here in Welcome. I saw Steve Scott is attorney for the organization and I thought, ‘Oh no, here you’ve got a commissioner working in the same law firm as the lawyer’” for the garden, Thomas said.
She didn’t object publicly at the time because she wanted to give the new board of commissioners a chance to handle the matter, Thomas said.
“It all goes back to the Scott law firm. In other words, Steve Scott is involved with so many things that come before the county commissioners … and that means Commissioner Collins would have to recuse himself all the time,” Thomas said.