By a 2-1 margin, the Allen County Ethics Commission on Friday voted to forward the complaint filed against County Councilman Paul Moss and Sheriff Ken Fries to both elected officials and request a written response be returned in 30 days.
The complaint, filed June 18 by Philip Pease, a former employee of the county, alleges Fries and Moss violated county regulations by having a phone conversation in the early hours of June 2 while Moss was the subject of a traffic stop. That conversation, the complaint alleges, resulted in Moss being allowed to leave without being subjected to a test to measure whether he had been drinking before the stop, which was conducted on Dupont Road by an Allen County Sheriff’s Department officer.
The commission, composed of Tom Hardin, Wendy Stein and Tom Ryan, is empowered to investigate complaints such as conflict of interest and acknowledge filings of gift disclosures, among other matters, due to a 2005 ordinance.
Hardin and Stein voted to forward the complaint; Ryan opposed the motion. The commission will meet at 1:30 Sept. 7 to discuss the potential responses to the commission’s request – neither Moss nor Fries is compelled to respond, though Hardin said after the meeting that he thought it was likely that both men would.
Even if both men respond, it is uncertain what ultimate authority the commission actually has over them. For example: As elected officials, the board is unable to fire either Moss or Fries, if, indeed, any violation is ruled to have taken place.
Moss has said that he called Fries not to seek special treatment but to speed up the testing process, which had been delayed because a Fort Wayne Police officer called to the scene had been diverted to another case.
Moss also has said he would have been willing to go downtown for a formal test, but said he declined the field sobriety test because it might be inaccurate.
Fries has said that he merely allowed his officer on the scene to use his discretion, which does happen in the field.
Pease contends that Moss’ council authority over Fries’ budget created a conflict of interest in violation of the county’s 2005 ethics policy and that Moss also had a financial reason to avoid a situation that might have jeopardized his business or political career.
Neither Fries nor Moss attended Friday’s meeting. Moss, however, did send an e-mailed statement to the ethics commission that read, in part:
“I have reviewed the complaint and it appears that the primary issue of concern is my ability to impact the Sheriff’s budget via my role on County Council. As one of seven members of Council I have limited influence over department budgets within County government. However, in order to avoid any perception of impropriety, I will abstain from the upcoming budget vote as it pertains to the Sheriff’s department. I do this reluctantly – my record of serving taxpayers by working to reduce the cost of government is well known.”
After the meeting, Hardin said the fact that there isn’t “an absolute, crystal-clear” process in handling a complaint of this type shouldn’t be a concern, saying that the 2005 ordinance provides a road map to performing an official inquiry, should one be deemed necessary.
The county ordinance does state that should the commission find a violation has been committed, “it shall state its findings in writing in a report, which shall be supported and signed by a majority of the Commission members and shall be made public. The report may make a recommendation for the sanctions to be imposed by the Appointing Authority or Elected Officer for the violation, including: (1) a letter of counseling; (2) a reprimand; (3) a suspension with or without pay; or (4) the dismissal of an Employee” – the last of which, again, isn’t applicable to elected officials.