After a three-year legal battle, the mayor of Dewey Beach has cleared her name of ethics violations.
Delaware Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that the Delaware Public Integrity Commission improperly cited Dewey Beach Mayor Diane Hanson for ethical violations in May 2011.
The commission cited Hanson because she took part in a vote to limit the height for construction at the Ruddertowne complex. The PIC said Hanson should have recused because she owns rental properties near Ruddertowne.
Hanson won her appeal of the ruling in Superior Court last year. Judge E. Scott Bradley said the commission lacked evidence to prove Hanson would have benefited financially from her vote. “Merely because Hanson and DBE would be renting rooms in the same town hardly means that they would be competing with each other,” Bradley wrote.
Supreme Court Justices Carolyn Berger, Henry duPont Ridgely and Jack Jacobs upheld Bradley’s decision June 19.
“I’m very pleased to be exonerated finally,” Hanson said. “I think it’s telling that they made their decision in such a short period of time.” Hanson also said the PIC abused its power in appealing the case to Supreme Court.
The court heard oral arguments in the case June 12, during which Berger and Jacobs questioned why the PIC was appealing the lower court’s decision. “This is being appealed because there’s a principle involved, or what?” Berger asked.
“What’s at stake here?” Jacobs asked.
Public Integrity Commission Counsel Janet Wright said the decision could impact the PIC’s rules of procedure because, Bradley ruled, the commission did not follow them.
In Wright’s Jan. 4 appeal of Bradley’s decision, she said the commission had substantial evidence to support its conclusion that Hanson violated the Code of Conduct.
Hanson said she was confident in her case after the Supreme Court appearance. “I had a strong feeling that they would rule in my favor,” she said.
Dewey Beach resident Joe Nelson filed the initial complaint against Hanson in September 2010. The PIC ruled Hanson violated the Code of Conduct in May 2011, because she participated in a vote to limit the height of Ruddertowne.
Hanson said if she had not fought the commission’s decision, it could have set precedence for zoning issues in Dewey Beach, allowing developers to control town council through lawsuits and PIC complaints. “The whole thing behind this was they were trying to get me to recuse my vote on Ruddertowne,” she said.
Hanson said the commission offered her an advisory opinion on several occasions, in which it agreed not to speak about the ethics violations if Hanson recused herself from all decisions involving Ruddertowne. Hanson said she refused the offer and continued to fight the charges against her.
“A lot of people would just give up and made some agreement with the PIC to make it go away,” she said. “I think it would discourage good and honest people from running for office, especially in a small town.”
In a phone conversation, Wright said the commission respects the court’s opinion. She also said Hanson was never offered an advisory opinion. “That never occurred,” she said. “Not to my recollection.”
Hanson said she also hopes the Supreme Court decision will change some of the commission’s policies. “They should not be allowed to use hearsay evidence,” Hanson said. “Either it’s hearsay, like rumor, or its evidence.”
Hanson also said the commission assumes everything in the complaint is true. “You are guilty until proven innocent,” she said.
Wright agreed the information presented to the PIC in a complaint must be overcome by the accused. “They are entitled to a presumption of honesty,” she said.
Wright said she would not speculate on what impact the court’s decision could have on the commission’s rules of procedure. She said the commission would meet and consider possible changes.
In November 2011, Dewey Beach Town Council voted unanimously to use town funds to pay for Hanson’s legal defense in the case against the PIC. Hanson said town officials are considering whether to seek reimbursement for her legal defense from the state. “Going to the Supreme Court especially, the PIC abused its power,” she said.
Town Manager Marc Appelbaum said the town so far has spent $47,000 on Hanson's legal defense.