SNOW HILL – Donors with deep pockets may not get much for their political contributions if one elected official succeeds in changing the county’s ethics law, as Worcester County Commissioner Virgil Shockley has pledged to do.
Shockley intends to present a bill this summer requiring commissioners who receive more than $500 from a campaign donor to recuse themselves from matters involving that donor.
“You will see before September a version of this law. That’s probably going to make some people in Worcester County mad,” Shockley said.
The three-term commissioner made sure to point out while campaigning that he had not and would not accept any funds from developers and promised to look into tightening up the ethics law.
Shockley’s election pledge was prompted by revelations during the 2006 County Commissioner primary campaigns that several sitting commissioners received substantial campaign donations from developers leading current projects that the commissioners would have be making decisions on in the next few years.
Although the developers’ donations were not illegal, the amounts accepted and the timing of the contributions troubled many residents. Not only did the developers donate the money, they donated the state maximum of $4,000 in several cases, unheard of in the low-key politics of Worcester County.
“Has it really gotten to the point where it’s the best politicians money can buy?” Shockley said.
ADC Builders, Cohen Companies and Sixty-Seventh Street OC LLC, donated $12,000 between them to three commissioners. ADC Builders has recently suspended work on a 1,000-home development in Showell, after pushing hard to get it through the county development and permitting process for the last year.
Brothers Mark and Matt Odachowski donated $16,400 to commissioner candidates, separately and together, during the 2006 campaign. Mark Odachowski is developing Summerfields, a massive development in Snow Hill, while Matt Odachowski, owner of Royal Plus Inc., recently received what some consider a sweetheart deal on a county-owned building. The county says the deal is a win-win for both sides.
The brothers donated funds to two commissioner candidates through a local limited company (LLC) they own called Up the Creek, LLC, under which they have developed at least one property.
“Summerfield is not over,” said Shockley “ADC is obviously alive and well. Look at the amount of money that was taken.”
Shockley is not interested in enacting too restrictive a law, however.
“If it’s a local race, $500 is it,” he said. Under his proposal, he said, “If you take more than $500, you have to excuse yourself.”
If his law is followed, the candidate then does not owe the donor anything, he said.
“I would be agreeable to discuss that,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs, who accepted $400 from Up the Creek LLC for her unopposed campaign for re-election to the District 5 commissioner seat.
Boggs said she has many questions about Shockley’s nascent law, which has not yet been drafted. She wondered whether only election year donations would count and whether in-kind services would go towards that $500 cut off.
Boggs said she supported changing what she called a “superficial” ethics law.
“The electorate, the residents of the county would just feel more comfortable if there were stricter ethics laws,” said Boggs. “I think it’s good business practice for the county for the future.”
Making the law more explicit will benefit office seekers as well, she feels.
“People who run for office ought to know what they’re getting into, what they can and can’t do,” Boggs said.
“I’d really like to see his proposal,” said Commissioner Bud Church, who accepted $8,000 from Matt Odachowski, Cohen Companies and Sixty-Seventh Street OC LLC.
Church wondered whether Shockley, a school bus contractor, would begin to recuse himself from votes involving the Board of Education budget, which pays the bus contractors.
“I really honestly need to see what he’s going to propose,” Church said. “I reserve judgment on that.”
Jim Purnell, president of the County Commissioners, could not be reached for comment. He received $8,000 from Mark Odachowski, and ADC Builders.
Commissioner Louise Gulyas, who received $4,000 from Up the Creek LLC, said she does not support changes to the ethics laws. If elected officials misbehave, disciplinary actions are available.
Gulyas said she does not see a trend of big money donations in the county, and that she does not expect county politics to become more negative over all.
“It’s very expensive to campaign and I tell my supporters right up front, your campaign donation doesn’t make me vote for what you want. It has nothing to do with that,” said Gulyas. “It’s not going to sway my vote at all. Ever. It’s just not my way. … There are certain people I wouldn’t take money from anyhow.”