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County says officials accepting fewer gifts

August 13, 1998|By MATTHEW BIENIEK

The dollar value of gifts to Washington County officials dropped from a combined $654 in 1996 to one $25 dinner in 1997, according to information on financial disclosure forms.

The disclosure forms filed by the Washington County Commissioners and department heads list any gifts received from individuals and companies.

Separate disclosure forms were filed by County Administrator Rodney Shoop, County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook and Human Resources Director Alan Davis, who each reported an April 1997 trip to the Masters golf tournament sponsored by INVESCO, a financial investment company that handles the county's pension fund.

Each of the three men reimbursed INVESCO $400 for food, lodging and the tickets, according to the disclosure forms each filed.

County Administrator Rodney Shoop reported receiving $384 in gifts in 1996. For 1997, the only gift with a value over $25 that he listed was the golf trip for which he reimbursed INVESCO.

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Shoop said public perception of gift-taking by county officials played a part in his decision to turn down gift offers made to him in the past year.

"Public perception of that incident affected my decisions," he said.

Commissioner R. Lee Downey was the only one to report taking a gift in 1997 - a $25 dinner paid for by Blue Cross/Blue Shield on Aug. 13, 1997.

A year earlier, Downey had reported receiving gifts worth $195, including two tickets to the Maryland Theatre valued at $70 and a $25 pen-and-pencil set from Purina Mills.

"Nobody called me and offered me tickets to a football game this year. If they were offered, I think I would have taken them," said Downey.

Downey said a $25 meal or football ticket would not influence any decision he makes as a commissioner.

If anything, campaign contributions were more likely than gifts to influence some elected officials, he said.

Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers reported receiving a $75 ticket to a Baltimore Ravens game in 1996, but reported taking no gifts in 1997.

"I try to keep mine reasonable. I make a conscious effort to avoid the appearance of impropriety," he said.

Bowers said fewer gifts were offered to the commissioners in 1997.

Bowers said he thinks companies are cutting back on gifts to public officials because of controversy about the gifts, especially those given to national and state officials.

County Attorney Richard W. Douglas reported he was offered a holiday food basket by attorney William McClure Schildt last fall but donated it to the Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused shelter in Hagerstown.

County Commissioners John S. Shank and James R. Wade, County Clerk Joni Bittner and County Treasurer Todd L. Hershey did not report receiving any gifts over $25 in 1997, according to county records.

Douglas said county officials are required to file disclosure forms for each calendar year. The forms are due Jan. 31 of the following calendar year.

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