Filing Number: 04-07
Subject: Ethics Code Complaint
Keywords: appearance of impropriety, appointed official, County official, Department of Land Use, disclosure, gifts, loan, real estate
Decision By: Commissioners: John McMahon, Thomas Collins, Miguel Gonzalez, V. Eugene McCoy, Mark Murowany
Contact Email: admin@nccethics.org
 
Status: Active

Order:

FINDINGS    
 
          1. Sherry Freebery was the Chief Administrative Officer of New Castle County from 1997 through 2004 and exercised supervisory authority over all administrative functions of County government.
 
          2. In 2001 Ms. Freebery accepted a gift/loan in excess of two million dollars from a developer who had project under regulation by the Land Use Department of County government at the time.
 
          3. In 2001, some time after accepting the gift/loan, Ms. Freebery delivered the Certificate for Occupancy for the project to the agent of the developer.
 
          4. As a result of constitutional considerations related to Ms. Freebery's status as a defendant in a concurrent federal criminal prosecution and the limited statutory period for ethics investigations recited in the New Castle County Code, the Commission's ability to investigate allegations about Ms. Freebery's conduct was severely limited.
 
          5. Although there was undisputed evidence that Ms. Freebery knowingly accepted a gift/loan from an individual who she knew had business pending before a County department she supervised, the Commission did not uncover any evidence that she used or attempted to use the authority of her office to obtain, or in return for, the gift/loan.
 
          6. The Ethics Code of Conduct provision at Section 2.03.104A states:
 
No County employee or County official shall engage in conduct which, while not constituting a violation of Section 2.02.103(A)(1), undermines the public confidence in the impartiality of a governmental body with which the County employee or County official is or has been associated by creating an appearance that the decisions or actions of the County employee, County official or governmental body are influenced by factors other that the merits.
 
          7. The Commission found that a reasonable member of the public, when informed of the circumstances surrounding the acceptance of the loan/gift, would believe that Ms. Freebery's acceptance of a sum of money in excess of two million dollars from a developer who had a pending project subject to County Land Use department regulation created the appearance that official County decisions regarding the developer's Land Use Department applications were influenced by Ms. Freebery's relationship with the developer, and not by the merits of the developer's applications.
 
          8. Such a belief, especially when held about the most senior appointed official in County government and the person tasked with the supervision of the entire administrative function of County government, not only undermines public confidence in the integrity of its government but also eats at the fabric of the institution itself.
 
CONCLUSION
 
           The allegation that Ms. Freebery violated the appearance of impropriety provision of the Ethics Code by knowingly and intentionally accepting a gift/loan in excess of two million dollars from an individual who had a pending project subject to regulation by a County department under her supervision is substantiated. In light of the fact that Ms. Freebery is no longer in the service of New Castle County government, the penalty imposed for that violation is a letter of reprimand.
 
BY AND FOR THE NEW CASTLE COUNTY ETHICS COMMISSION THIS 6th DAY OF DECEMBER 2007.
 
_________________________
John McMahon, Chairperson
 
Decision: Unanimous