THE ETHICS COMMISSION - A MIXED REVIEW: WHERE IT HAS DONE RIGHT AND WHERE IT HAS GONE WRONG @ 22 Jan 2008

Done Right:  The Ethics Commission has done a fine job of informing government employees and citizens about the Ethics Law.  They distributed a Guide to the Ethics Law and fact sheets, and they are holding informational meetings with public employees. The volunteer Ethics Commissioners are to be congratulated for the energy, time, and effort they have dedicated to their information efforts.

 Done Right:  The Ethics Commission has been diligent and fair in dealing with those who, after multiple requests and warnings, failed without good cause to submit their financial disclosure form by the January due date.

Having served complaints on the offenders, the Ethics Commission imposed a fine of $200 on those still failing to comply with the law.  Subsequently, they sent a letter to the few individuals who had yet to comply, giving them 30 days to pay the fine and file their disclosure form, or the Ethics Commission would forward the complaint to the State’s Attorney for enforcement.  In October, with one outstanding fine left, the Ethics Commission Chair asked its Counsel to keep checking with the State’s Attorney on the status of the follow-up on this Ethics Law violation. 

Throughout the undoubtedly difficult process of serving ethics complaints on fellow citizens in a small county, the Ethics Commission has made the effort to deal fairly with the disposition of each complaint, keeping in mind both individual circumstances and the unacceptability of non-compliance when the vast majority of those required to file financial disclosure did as the law requires.

Gone Wrong:  Through its Advisory Opinions, the Ethics Commission advises public employees and officials regarding compliance with the law. As the Maryland Attorney General notes, publishing the substance and reasoning of advisory opinions benefits the public at large.

Of real concern is the determination that a member of their Commission, who joined the law firm of the Ethics Commission’s counsel, did not have a conflict of interest, or even the appearance of a conflict of interest. 

The Ethics Law prohibits any County employee or member of a County commission from “having a financial interest in an entity that is … doing business with the governmental unit with which the official or employee is affiliated.”    This is a fundamental financial conflict of interest provision that the State requires as part every county’s ethics law.  In this situation, the Ethics Commission member has a financial interest (as an independent contractor) in an entity (Counsel’s law firm) that is doing business (as counsel) with the Ethics Commission.  It is a clearly prohibited situation.

Surely both the Counsel and the Member, also an attorney, knew this key prohibition and knew that the conditions for an exception did not exist.  Nevertheless, the Member requested an advisory opinion.  Without even considering the key on-point and State-mandated financial conflicts provision, the Ethics Commission advised that there was no conflict or appearance of a conflict.  (See www.ethicsmattersinc.org/documents/conflicts9.17.07d.pdf  second paragraph)

Asked by Ethics Matters to reconsider their opinion, the Ethics Commission refused to do so and instead issued another opinion affirming their decision of no conflict.  Again the Ethics Commission failed to take into account the principal financial conflicts provision applicable to the situation. They advised that because the Member had since resigned, the financial conflicts issue contained in 8-11 (2)(b) was “moot.” (www.ethicsmattersinc.org/documents/conflicts12.20.07.pdf ) It is distressing that the Ethics Commission made no effort to correct its mistake, and instead chose to reaffirm their prior, published decision of no conflict which ignores the law and will certainly lead others astray.

Meanwhile, advised that there was no conflict, the resigned Member continued to act as a member of the Ethics Commission, participating in its discussions and voting on issues before it - while at the same time having a financial interest in the Counsel's law firm.  This is, simply put, a situation expressly prohibited by the Ethics Law.

It is particularly unfortunate that this situation involves the Ethics Commission itself.

The Ethics Commsiion is accountable for both its good works and for its mistakes.  Ethics Matters has noted their good works at evey opportunity.  We hope that the Ethics Commsiion will recognize the presence of a prohibited conflict in this situation by withdrawing their two erroneous and misleading opinions.

 

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