County seeks ethics probe against Bowles

Officials refer case to state board

Friday, April 18, 2008

After stripping her of her county retirement benefits Wednesday, the Charles County commissioners agreed to ask the state ethics commission to investigate Register of Wills Susie Bowles (R).

The commissioners held a brief public hearing Wednesday in which Bowles apologized for ‘‘any confusion my request has made,” referring to her April 2007 request to be added to a county retirement benefit for elected officials while still being eligible for a state pension.

The commissioners approved a supplemental retirement deal for Bowles last year that would bring her up to par with county elected officials. But they now say they voted for the measure believing that Bowles had no retirement benefit at all.

‘‘We’ve been put in a very unusual position by the register of wills,” said commissioners’ President F. Wayne Cooper (D), reading a prepared statement after the board voted to withdraw the benefit. Cooper said Bowles’ presentations before the board in April of last year ‘‘clearly left the impression that the register of wills did not receive any benefit for her years of service.”

The commissioners opened the Wednesday hearing by playing back video clips of the appearances Bowles made before the board April 4 and 27, 2007.

‘‘As everybody is aware, I don’t have a retirement, and I would hope that you would look at this favorably for me,” Bowles said at the April 4, 2007 appearance. And again, at the April 27, 2007, appearance, she said, ‘‘As you know, I don’t have a retirement ... and I would very much like to come under the list of the county.”

The supplemental retirement deal came under fire in February from Ken Smith, director of administration and finance for the state comptroller, who wrote the commissioners, complaining that the county’s action gave Bowles, a state employee, an unfair benefit that other registers of wills in the state did not enjoy.

Bowles spoke during the public hearing, referring to paperwork she submitted to the commissioners last year that specified that the county benefit would only supplement her state pension.

‘‘I, [at] no point, gave my testimony to mislead you or to lie,” Bowles said. She said she contributes to a state pension and she never intended to jeopardize her office. ‘‘I apologize for any confusion my request has made.”

Bowles briefly left the hearing room as the commissioners voted unanimously to remove her benefit.

Following the vote, Cooper asked the board to approve a resolution referring the matter to the state ethics commission ‘‘for a full-scale investigation.”

Commissioner Edith J. Patterson (D) agreed and moved in favor of Cooper’s suggestion. Commission Reuben B. Collins II (D) seconded the motion, saying that Bowles’ 2007 statements were ‘‘clearly vexing in many ways.”

Collins said the vote was ‘‘probably the most difficult decision I’ve had to make as a commissioner.”

‘‘The rumor mill has already tried Ms. Bowles,” said Commissioner Samuel N. Graves (D). However, Graves said, ‘‘I think the citizens deserve to hear the truth.”

The vote to refer the matter to the ethics commission was also unanimous.

Bowles declined to comment after the vote.

In a previous interview with the Independent, she stated she draws a distinction between the terms ‘‘retirement” and ‘‘pension.”

She admitted to telling the commissioners that she does not receive a retirement, but said she was referring to the county’s retirement program, not denying that she receives a state pension.

This is not the first time Bowles’ ethics have been questioned.

Shortly after she won her first election to the register’s office in 1990, her opponents released documents showing that Bowles fudged her education credentials in a local voters’ guide and had been arrested for shoplifting in Texas in 1984. Bowles was never convicted of the charge, but was given probation before judgment, according to the Independent’s coverage of the incident.

The commissioners’ Wednesday action came after what several witnesses described as a tense interrogation of Commissioners Collins and Hodge by members of the 4th & 5th Districts Democratic Club in Cobb Island on Monday night.

‘‘I thought it expressed some concern by the members of the club and the party” about the retirement benefit, said Frank Lancaster, president of the club. Lancaster said that club members were concerned about the elected official retirement benefit as a whole, not just Bowles’ benefit.