- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
This article was updated at 8:33 a.m. Feb. 7. See explanation below.
Charles County commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II violated a March 2012 consent order with the county ethics commission by signing on to a civil case as co-counsel with the La Plata law firm he agreed to distance himself from, the commission ruled last month.
Per his agreement with the Charles County Ethics Commission, Collins (D) is allowed to rent office space and pay for administrative help from The Scott Law Group, where he had previously been listed as “of counsel” for the firm.
But Collins is not allowed to work jointly with the law firm, a stipulation the commission found he violated in April by joining a civil case as counsel alongside an associate at the firm. Collins withdrew from the case in November, according to online court records.
In addition to finding that Collins violated the consent order, the commission ordered he neither act as co-counsel nor jointly represent clients with The Scott Law Group in the future, according to a copy of the Jan. 15 order sent to the Maryland Independent.
Collins did not dispute the violation when reached by phone, stating he did not think to review the consent order before joining the case by request of The Scott Law Group associate.
“I can only blame myself by not fully appreciating how prohibitive the consent order was,” Collins said.
Collins said the case was expected to be resolved when one of the parties entered bankruptcy, and the party ultimately did so, but Collins said he was asked to join on the off chance it proceeded to litigation.
“I never went to court on that case. I never received a penny from that case, but it was a violation of the agreement,” he said. “This was one thing found out of at least, and I’m not exaggerating, at least 10 allegations that were raised, many things that have been stated over and over again by these individuals.”
The order came in response to ethics complaints submitted July 3 and 4 by Cheryl Thomas of Welcome and Pauleen Brewer of Hughesville.
Brewer managed Candice Quinn Kelly’s 2010 campaign for commissioners’ president.
Brewer did not return a call seeking comment, but Thomas said she was unsatisfied with the commission’s decision.
“There really was no punishment to speak of, that I derived from it,” Thomas said. “I was just very disappointed in the ruling. I think it could have been more restrictive.”
Collins’ affiliation with The Scott Law Group came under public fire when Thomas filed an ethics complaint in November 2011 stating he should recuse himself from matters involving The St. Charles Cos., the Waldorf-based developer of the county’s largest planned community and a client of the firm.
The complaint prompted the consent order, which Collins released publicly because “we never felt that was a conflict, but we obviously wanted to ensure that any public perception would be addressed in how we dealt with it,” he said.
But the issue has continued to dog Collins, with residents consistently bringing up his apparent connection to the firm at public hearings and the commissioner’s monthly town hall meetings.
Critics often have pointed out that, despite the agreement, Collins for a time appeared in online court records as being part of The Scott Law Group. Collins said because he shared an address with Scott Law, the county court system automatically listed him online as belonging to the firm, even though in the physical court filings he was listed under his own limited liability corporation. Collins has since had the error corrected, he said.
“I think it’s been coming primarily from the people who have been critical of everything I’ve done,” he said. “It’s not like this is coming from this swell of the general public. It’s not. It’s coming from a handful of people.”
Scrutiny only has intensified with the emergence of the Balanced Growth Initiative, a pro-growth group that has supported maintaining the county’s current residential zoning density in opposition to county staff, state agencies, local environmentalists and smart growth advocates. Firm principal Steve Scott is listed as BGI’s resident agent.
“Here he is sharing an office with a law firm that presents a lot of cases before the commissioners and before the planning commission, and I think he should be required to recuse himself before all cases that are brought before the commissioners by this particular law firm because they do share the same office, the same phone number,” Thomas said. “It gives the appearance that he’s working with that particular law firm, though he claims they’re separate.”
Collins said he made a practice of recusing himself from matters involving The Scott Law Group prior to the consent order but stopped doing so once the agreement with the ethics commission was reached.
“Anybody can check. Up until that agreement was signed, I was recusing myself from matters Steve Scott brought before the commissioners, and I didn’t have to,” Collins said. “The consent agreement took away the relationship I had with Scott Law.”
Collins dismissed the notion that his renting office space from the firm constituted a conflict, noting “I could have a law office 100 miles away from Steve Scott, and I could still talk to him.”
Collins also intimated it is hypocritical to suggest he has a conflict given The Scott Law Group’s location at the Maredith Building, an office building owned by the real estate company founded by Ed Kelly, husband of commissioners’ President Kelly (D).
“From my perspective, its more of a conflict that one of the sitting commissioners owns the building where Steve Scott is paying rent,” Collins said. “From my perspective, that’s being enriched from that relationship.”
According to Candice Kelly, the building houses condominiums and Steve Scott owns his space. He does not pay rent.
This story was updated with additional information from Charles County commmissioners’ Candice Quinn Kelly about Steve Scott’s ownership of the space that houses The Scott Law Group.