While elected officials and scores of city employees are required to fill out annual ethics disclosures, there is no formal process by which the forms are scrutinized.
Attorney Dana P. Moore, who was a member of the ethics board from 2004 to 2010 and served as its chairwoman for three years, said that the citizen board never reviewed the forms in the six years she was a member. City employees turned in their forms to the board's executive director Aisenstark, and he did not bring the forms to the ethics board to review, Moore said.
Moore herself failed to file her ethics forms during her last three years on the board, as required of its five members, which she acknowledged was a "mistake."
Aisenstark said his office receives thousands of ethics forms annually from city employees, and it's impossible for his staff to review them all. For their part, rank-and-file employees are prohibited from taking gifts from entities that do business with the agency where they work.
"We don't have the personnel," he said. "We don't have the workforce to be able to do it. They're for the public and the press to review."
The forms are tucked into folders and envelopes, wrapped with rubber bands and stashed in metal filing cabinets spanning a couple of rooms in the Department of Legislative Reference's offices on the top floor of City Hall. The cabinets are not labeled, and Aisenstark said he does not know which are filed where.
Under the law, the board and its executive director are tasked with reviewing the ethics forms "from time to time," notifying individuals of omissions and mistakes, and launching investigations if warranted.
Members of the board, which meets once a month, are volunteers. Aisenstark earns $94,000 a year and has worked for the city for nearly two decades. Aisenstark sits in on their meetings, clarifying the city code and at times leading the discussion.
Aisenstark declined to comment on specific cases involving elected officials but said he would hold a training session soon to explain ethics rules to council members who are not in compliance.
Still, the lack of consistent review of the forms troubles ethics experts.
"If the ethics committee does not receive these disclosure forms, what's the point of having them?" asked Guy, who advised members of Rawlings-Blake's staff on how to properly complete them. "The system becomes a joke."
Christopher B. Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, said he believes city officials know how infrequently their ethics forms are scrutinized.
"They know how closely they can bend the rules without raising red flags," he said. "They know how disorganized and dysfunctional it is. Why bother submitting them? Why even have them?"
Paid in cash
Tickets received by city lawmakers garnered public attention in January when Young said he reached out to Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis — whom he views as a friend — to get access to his private box at M&T Bank Stadium to watch the playoff game with the Houston Texans.
Young said he was forced to do so because Rawlings-Blake demanded he return tickets to the city's skybox after he publicly criticized her administration's effort to hold another Grand Prix race on Baltimore's streets.
But Lewis also is a businessman whose company has worked with the city. He was part of a development team that had planned to build a shopping and sports entertainment complex near the stadium and that negotiated a $1.2 million settlement with the city when the deal fell through, clearing the way for a planned casino to be built on the site.
Young pledged to pay Lewis for the tickets after the gift came to light. Davis, Young's spokesman, said the councilman has paid Lewis but declined to provide documentation to show how much or when he paid for the tickets.
Since 2008, the council president reported receiving 24 tickets to skyboxes at Ravens games and to other events from people or entities who do business with the city.
In seven of those instances, the benefactors weren't event sponsors. Young said he paid for some of those tickets in cash. In other cases, he said he received oral approval from Aisenstark, the adviser to the ethics board. City law requires written approval from the board itself.