Baltimore County's public ethics law falls short of Maryland standards because it allows elected leaders to accept tickets to sporting events from people who do business with the county, state officials said Friday.
The county has described its ethics laws — overhauled late last year — as among the toughest in the Maryland. But the State Ethics Commission has warned Baltimore County that it is not in compliance with a 2010 law that requires local ethics laws to be at least as strong as those state lawmakers must follow.
"The commission rejected their provision in the Baltimore County ethics law that allows for the acceptance of [sporting] tickets or free admission for elected officials," said Michael Lord, executive director of the commission. "State law does not allow elected officials or their representatives to take sporting tickets."
Baltimore County's law also did not comply with state rules requiring disclosure of other types of tickets, Lord said.
County officials said they would review their law in light of the state's notification. They added that there are several areas — including the online posting of financial disclosure forms — where the county has gone beyond Maryland rules.
Much of the county's legislation, proposed by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, was driven by the changing statewide standards. Maryland law bars officials from taking gifts from people who do business with their agencies or whose activities are regulated by them.
"It's absolutely our intention to comply with the state requirements," said Ellen Kobler, a spokeswoman for Kamenetz.
Under the law passed in December, County Council members and other officials are allowed to take tickets to football games and other sporting events "as a courtesy" to their office, even though other county employees can't.
According to the most recent financial disclosure forms available, Kamenetz and CouncilmanJohn Olszewski Sr.both received football tickets from developers in 2010.
County Council members play a significant role in local development decisions.
Kamenetz, who served on the council until 2010, reported receiving Ravens tickets from developer Art Adler of Caves Valley Partners. He did not report how many tickets he received or their value.
Kobler said Kamenetz received two tickets for a game Nov. 28, 2010, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Kamenetz did not report how much the tickets were worth because the skybox tickets didn't have a face value, she said.
"The county executive … was not required to disclose those tickets at the time, but he wanted to go above and beyond," she said.
Olszewski, a Dundalk Democrat, reported receiving a Ravens ticket worth $125 from Edward St. John of St. John Properties. He received another ticket from Adler, which he said was also worth $125. The only other gift he reported was a $100 round of golf from Scott Barhight, a land-use attorney.
Olszewski said he is open in his public disclosures about gifts he's received.
"I'm being transparent," he said. "All the council members get invited to events, and I always disclose that."
St. John Properties declined to comment through a spokesman. Adler did not respond to requests for comment. Barhight declined to comment.
Fred Guy, director of the University of Baltimore's Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics, said it's clear elected officials want to continue attending sporting events on developers' dime. "They're crafting their own ethics code to serve their own interests," he said.
According to an ethics guide for members of the Maryland General Assembly, "Sports tickets are never legal gifts from a nongovernmental donor, although sports tickets may be purchased by a legislator for face value."
Kobler said County Attorney Mike Field received a letter from the ethics commission Friday and will review it. Neither the county nor the state would release the correspondence.
"He worked for months with state officials to draft the language, and when our law passed, he made it clear that it would have to be reviewed at the state level," she said.
The County Council will take whatever action is needed to fix the law, said Chairwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat. "If it's wrong, we'll revisit it," she said.
While Maryland lawmakers are barred from accepting sports tickets, they can accept free admission to charitable, cultural and political affairs if the tickets come from the events' sponsors. Baltimore County's ethics law does not call for disclosure of those tickets, which is required under state rules, Lord said.
The distinction between sports and other events is important, said state Sen. Jamie Raskin, lead sponsor of the 2010 law that required local governments to strengthen their ethics rules. He said he has not reviewed Baltimore County's law.
"The underlying rationale has to be that there are a lot of legislators who really want to go to sporting events, and therefore the tickets seem much more like a gift or a gratuity thrown at a politician, rather than an invitation," said Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who heads a Senate committee on ethics reform. "When we as legislators go to a Ravens game or a Redskins game, we are not in any way uplifting the ceremony or dignity of the event. And most people simply don't notice that we're there."
Baltimore City last year barred elected officials from accepting sports event tickets as gifts from anyone who does business with the city. This month, a Baltimore Sun investigation found that City Hall officials have different views on what they are allowed to take and do not follow uniform standards in disclosing gifts. Over three years, city elected leaders disclosed more than 170 tickets worth more than $15,000, according to the most recent filings available.
The state ethics commission has approved Baltimore City's and nine counties' ethics laws so far, Lord said. Other counties' laws are being reviewed.
Among other new rules proposed by Kamenetz, the county law would require elected officials' financial disclosure forms to be posted online starting in May and would prohibit former employees from lobbying on matters they worked on for the county.
Tickets and other gifts cause "a skeptical public to become even more skeptical," said Susan Wichmann, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland.
"It helps people have faith in their government generally if they don't think that councilmen or legislators are not in to get special access or privileges that the rest of us have no hope of receiving," she said. "It's very easy for these things to become special perks for people who are trying to influence the outcome of legislation. That's why we worry about these things."
The ethics commission can sue in Circuit Court if local governments don't comply with the 2010 law, Lord said. It's up to local governments to enforce their own ethics rules.
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.
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