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Former Washington Co. official gets probation for extortion

December 14, 2007|By ERIN JULIUS

HAGERSTOWN - Washington County's former deputy water quality director pleaded guilty Thursday in Washington County Circuit Court to a felony count of extortion by a public official.

James Ernest Bishop, 62, received probation before judgment from Washington County Circuit Judge John H. McDowell.

Bishop, who has no prior criminal record, must serve 15 months of unsupervised probation.

Bishop, who retired from the county after more than 20 years of service, was charged in connection with two incidents dating to 2004.

The incident to which he pleaded guilty involved his approving work done by a contractor, even though it was not done to the project's specifications. In return, the county received a $1,400 laser survey level.

The contractor's work actually had exceeded the standards of the projects, McDowell said. Bishop had not personally gained anything from the interaction, the judge said.

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During the course of his investigation into the incident, Deputy State's Attorney Joseph Michael spoke to area contractors, he said during Thursday morning's hearing.

Michael said Bishop had been acting in a manner that was the "culture of the industry."

Michael hoped that prosecuting Bishop for his behavior would result in a fair playing field, he said.

Defense attorney Scott Rolle asked that Washington County's reputation not be held against his client.

Bishop had been trying to resolve a situation in favor of everyone involved, and had permission to do that from his superiors, he said.

The equipment at issue had been found in a county office, unopened and unused, years later, he said.

"It appears this is the way things have been taking place for a lengthy period of time," McDowell said before he sentenced Bishop.

The county and the contractor, but not Bishop personally, gained from the deal, McDowell said.

The contractor's benefit was not having to redo work Bishop would have had the power to require, the judge said.

Contacted Thursday afternoon, Washington County Administrator Greg Murray, who served as the director of the Department of Water Quality in 2004, vehemently denied that actions such as Bishop's were business as usual.

"Obviously, this went to court because something was found out that was not business as usual," he said.

Murray also said he did not know where the level is now because he wasn't involved in the investigation.

County officials, from the county commissioners down through the staff, work to maintain cooperative relationships with local contractors, he said.

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