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Nov. 30 public hearing set on ethics complaint against councilman

Investigation of Paul Moss a 'witch hunt,' one board member says

Monday, October 29, 2012 - 3:44 pm

It's still not clear what he asked for or what – if anything – he received in return. Even so, the Allen County Ethics Commission Monday found that probable cause exists to believe County Councilman violated the county's conflict-of-interest policy following a June traffic stop.

But the 2-0 vote came only after a heated exchange between board Chairman Tom Hardin and member Tom Ryan, a former Allen Circuit Court judge who stormed out of the meeting he branded a “witch hunt.”

Moss, who was stopped June 2 by a county policy officer, later said he had not been drinking but may have swerved while texting. He refused a breath test at the scene and called Fries – a call Moss said was intended to speed up the process of taking him downtown for a more accurate test, not to seek release. Fries has denied ordering his officer to grant Moss special treatment, but Moss was ultimately let go without taking any test, prompting the complaint filed later in June by Phillip Pease.

But whether that version of events matches the official record remains unknown, because written statements from the two county and one city officers ultimately involved in the stop remain sealed and board members offered few details Monday. The testimony may or may not be revealed at a public hearing on the case scheduled for Nov. 30.

Hardin, however, said the fact that Moss called Fries – apparently without the consent of officers at the scene – indicates he violated the county's 2005 ethics ordinance. Moss may have had a financial interest in the outcome of the stop, Hardin said, and it could be inferred that the call was intended to influence special treatment not available to the general public. Board member Wendy Stein agreed. As Councilman, Moss has influence over the Sheriff's budget. And even though Moss abstained during recent budget hearings, that would not eliminate the appearance of a conflict, Hardin said.

But Ryan, who previously asked the board to dismiss Pease's complaint and unsuccessfully tried to do so again Monday, argued the board is not the proper place to hear the evidence or take corrective action.

“Your analysis is wrong,” Ryan told Hardin before suggesting that misconduct by Fries or his officers should be investigated by the Sheriff Department's Internal Affairs division. If a crime may have been committed or covered up, he added, the County Prosecutor should be brought in.

“And what was the motive of the person who filed the complaint?” Ryan said, adding that he was unaware that Pease was a former county employee despite media reports of that fact. Pease has made no secret of his unhappiness with various county officials.

Failing to have the case dismissed, Ryan stood, said “I won't be party to a witch hunt,” then walked out.

“That's regrettable,” said Hardin, an attorney. “We should be able to reasonably disagree and still function (as a board).”

Hardin said Moss will probably be asked to appear at the Nov. 30 hearing. Moss has complained previously about not receiving advance notice of the board's meetings.

Moss' attorney, Tim Pape, was at Monday's meeting and sought clarification on the board's vote and the forthcoming hearing: Will we be able to subpoena witnesses? Will the evidence remain confidential? What favor, exactly, did Moss allegedly seek?

“My client is entitled to know the factual foundation” of the case, Pape said. “You're sitting as the prosecutor and jury.”

“We won't get into specifics here,” said Hardin, adding that the board will seek an attorney to represent its interests prior to the Nov. 30 hearing.

Pease's original complaint also accused Fries of a conflict of interest, but the board dismissed that charge after finding the Fries is covered by the Indiana Sheriffs' Association's ethics policy. Moss questioned the board's authority as well, claiming he is covered by ethical guidelines covering elected officials. The board rejected that claim as “insufficient.”

Moss, who will leave office Dec. 31, said Monday's vote was “frustrating. It does feel more like a witch hunt every day. There's been no due process. I don't know what Hardin's hoping to find. I don't know what his motive is.

“I wish I did.”