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The Charles County Ethics Commission dismissed a complaint filed against county commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly after she followed recommendations made by the ethics board, according to a July 5 letter sent by the board to one of the complainants.

The ethics board “made certain recommendations to Commissioner Kelly,” the Rev. Robert Buehler, chairman, wrote in the letter to former Charles County Planning Commission member Louis Grasso, who filed the complaint April 22 along with current planning board member Joe Richard. “Commissioner Kelly agreed with the Commission’s recommendations and took the necessary steps to comply. Therefore, the Commission has dismissed the complaint against Commissioner Candice Quinn Kelly.”

When reached for comment, Kelly denied that she had reached an agreement with the ethics commission, but instead said that the board had found she committed no ethics violation.

“I am pleased and had no doubt that there would be no finding of an ethics violation,” Kelly said. “It’s disgraceful that you would have a current and former planning commission member filing this complaint.”

The complaint stems from a March meeting of the planning commission, when Grasso and Richard questioned Planning Director Stephen Ball regarding historical sites that were omitted from a staff report on the nearly 700-acre Piney Reach Business Park, proposed to be built near the county landfill in Waldorf.

Ball said that he had, until recently, been unaware of the historical sites, but he walked out of the meeting when Grasso and Richard both expressed skepticism over his explanation.

The St. Charles Cos., the park’s developer, has since agreed to carve out the historical sites from its project.

The confrontation inflamed a heated public debate over the planning commission’s makeup, and the next day Kelly called for Grasso and Richards to be removed from the board, stating that they had mistreated county staff.

Grasso’s second term on the planning commission expired at the end of 2012, and having served two terms, he was not eligible for reappointment. But the commissioners voted 3-2 to keep the planning board together through April, with Kelly and Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) dissenting.

The commissioners appointed Gilbert “Buddy” Bowling and Kenneth Smith to the planning board April 30, replacing Grasso and then-chairman Courtney Edmonds, who was eligible for reappointment.

In their complaint, Grasso and Richard called Kelly’s request that they be removed from the planning commission “improper” given her alleged financial ties to The St. Charles Cos. through Maredith Management, a community management firm she founded in 2001.

Maredith Management lists more than 50 clients on its website, several of them St. Charles communities.

The complaint also states that Kelly improperly failed to recuse herself from a March 2011 work session involving two St. Charles neighborhoods, and that she drove a BMW leased to Maredith Management.

Though she still owns the company, Kelly said in April that she took care of any conflicts of interest by handing over its management to her two children in February 2011, as recommended in an advisory opinion she requested from the ethics commission shortly after taking office.

In a recent interview, Kelly said the complaint amounted to “nothing more than political harassment.”

“This is another example of private developer influence on one former and one current member of the planning commission, because they want to develop every square inch of this county,” she added. “They keep trumping up these things to keep tormenting an elected official because I won’t play their game. I don’t care how much money they have. I don’t care that they can influence a majority of this board. They can’t influence me.”

“If anyone is being harassed, it was myself and Mr. Grasso,” Richard said. “I find it a rather strange comment. I didn’t call for anyone’s removal from the planning commission because I was asking hard questions about an application that was pending before us.”

When asked for details of any understanding she had reached with the ethics commission, Kelly said there was nothing to report.

“The ethics commission went through their normal process to the best of my knowledge, and there was no finding of an ethics violation, and that’s why there was nothing reported to the press,” she said.

Grasso requested further information on the recommendations made by the ethics board, but was told they were confidential in a July 19 letter from attorney Samuel C. Steelman Jr., independent counsel to the ethics commission. Grasso provided copies of the July 5 and 19 letters to the Maryland Independent.

“I frankly think public officials should be held to a higher standard, and for the ethics commission to just sweep this under the rug,” he said. “We deserve to know whether she in fact violated the ethics code or not. What were your findings? What were your recommendations?”

Richard said Kelly is not living up to her 2010 campaign promise to increase government transparency.

“She set the bar, so she has an obligation to meet that bar, or stop insisting that she’s more transparent than everyone else,” he said. “She’s declaring her vindication without presenting any evidence to support that.”

Richard noted that commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D) publicly released details of an agreement he reached with the ethics commission in March 2012.

“If there’s nothing to hide and everything is above board, than release all the information,” he added. “If the ethics commission says she didn’t violate any ethics, that’s fine. But until she provides some information, then I think all of this is a lot conjecture on her part.”

Kelly also took exception to the complaint’s inclusion of a photocopy of the BMW’s registration certificate.

“I want to know how Joe Richard and Lou Grasso came into possession of that,” Kelly said. “It’s not their property, I did not give it to them, and I know that anyone else who had ownership of that vehicle did not give it to them, so as far as I’m concerned, that’s stolen property.”

Grasso said the copy was obtained legally by an attorney who helped prepare the complaint, but he could not recall the lawyer’s name.

Richard said the certificate is public record, but the Maryland Vehicle Administration does not disclose records including personal information, like the vehicle’s owner or address, MVA spokesman Buel Young said.

When told the photocopy does not have the vehicle’s owner, address or identification number redacted, Young said, “That didn’t come from us.”

The advisory opinion allows Kelly to “drive [the BMW] every day, if I wanted to,” she said last week. Kelly denied having driven the car when asked about it in April.

jnewman@somdnews.com