Del. Morhaim violated the spirit of Maryland ethics rules, panel finds

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Del. Dan Morhaim violated the spirit of Maryland's ethics laws, legislative panel finds.

Baltimore County Del. Dan Morhaim violated the spirit of Maryland's ethics rules when he served as a chief architect of Maryland's medical marijuana industry without fully disclosing his ties to a company seeking licenses to sell the drug, according to a 17-page ethics report.

The Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics found Morhaim's conduct was "improper because his actions were contrary to the principles of ethical standards."

The report recommended Morhaim be reprimanded and suggested that he issue a public apology.

The House of Delegates will vote Friday morning on whether to mete out that punishment, which allows him to remain in office.

The report, obtained from multiple sources by The Baltimore Sun, also found there was "not sufficient evidence" Morhaim intentionally used his position as a delegate to garner benefits for the company he represented. But it concluded he showed "poor judgment" that "has eroded the confidence and trust of the public ... bringing disrepute and dishonor to the General Assembly."

The public rebuke comes after a months-long inquiry into how Morhaim, a Democrat and physician, pushed for legislation to broaden the medical marijuana market and recommended how regulations should be written to govern it.

At the same time, Morhaim was a paid consultant and had agreed to serve as clinical director for a dispensary operated by Doctor's Orders LLC, a company that received three preliminary licenses to grow, process and dispense medical marijuana.

Morhaim disclosed to the legislative ethics office that he "may" work as a medical marijuana consultant, but did not reveal the extent of his involvement.

In a three-page defense sent to his colleagues, Morhaim blamed the news media for what he called an "erroneous" characterization of his disclosures and criticized the wording of the state's ethics rules.

"I did not violate the letter of the law, but I might have violated the spirit of the law," Morhaim wrote.

The other delegate central to legalizing and expanding the medical marijuana industry said she was "alarmed and disappointed" that Morhaim was not facing harsher punishment.

"He didn't do anything wrong? Oh, please," said Del. Cheryl Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat. "It's incredulous that all he's getting is a slap on the wrist. ... He definitely has used the power of his position as a legislator. Would Doctor's Orders have been interested in forming a financial relationship with him if he wasn't a lawmaker?"

In a Friday news conference, Gov. Larry Hogan called Morhaim's punishment insufficient.

"I was disappointed in the lack of action on behalf of the legislature," the Republican governor said in response to a question.

"There's no question in my mind that what was done was completely unethical and in my opinion somebody has such complete disregard for the ethics laws of Maryland should be removed from office rather than slapped on the wrist," Hogan said. "It seems like they always want to sweep things under the rug and not take real action."

Hogan said Morham's conduct "certainly stains" the image of every legislator and proves the need to pass tough ethics laws.

Legislative ethics counsel Dea Daly told the ethics committee she would have advised Morhaim differently if he had said he was a paid consultant for a company seeking a medical marijuana license at the same time he was testifying as a legislator before the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission. That privilege was not awarded to the general public.

Lawmakers are prohibited from using the prestige of office for personal gain, and the report said Morhaim "should have" told the commission he was involved with a company, instead of letting its members believe he was only an objective policymaker.

"As a prominent legislative leader and long-time advocate for medical cannabis in the General Assembly, Delegate Morhaim knew he had a level of credibility, influence and access to the [Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission] that other persons, including other legislators, did not," lawmakers wrote in their report. "He leveraged that influence to advocate for a policy that he should have known could have resulted in gain to himself or his employer."

Morhaim said the rule should be reviewed.

"For the future, I am concerned about the fairness of a process that penalizes members who comply with the clear letter of the law, but who can be found to violate the 'spirit' of the law," he wrote. "We need clear bright lines."

The government transparency group Common Cause agreed.

"This shows we do need more clarity in our ethics law," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of the watchdog group. "If this behavior should have been disclosed, we should open up our ethics laws and say that."

While the ethics inquiry was underway, House Speaker Michael E. Busch stripped Morhaim of his leadership posts as deputy majority leader and as chair of a subcommittee. Busch also removed Morhaim from the Health and Government Operations Committee, where he had served since 2003. Morhaim was first elected to the legislature in 1995.

When his ties to Doctor's Orders were made public this summer, Morhaim told The Sun that, in hindsight, he should have disclosed the extent of his relationship but believed he had "followed all the rules the best that I knew how."

Representatives from the company did not respond to a request for comment.

Throughout the inquiry, and on Thursday, Morhaim maintained that he broke no rules and did nothing wrong. He nonetheless issued an apology.

"I pledge to redouble my efforts to serve honorably and in the public interest," Morhaim said. "I deeply regret and apologize for any actions on my part — however they came about — that may have tarnished the public perception of the legislature and the hard and important work that we all do."

On Wednesday, Morhaim demanded an apology from Hogan after the governor said he believed Morhaim could be thrown out of the General Assembly "for illegal activities and arranging to get himself two [medical] marijuana licenses."

Morhaim called that accusation "patently false." Hogan refused to apologize.

The ethics committee's report concluded that "Delegate Morhaim's failure to disclose and be transparent undermines the public's confidence in an independent legislature that it not be influenced by the potential for personal financial gain.

"As a part-time citizen legislature, the members must be ever vigilant that they do not cross the line between their personal interest and the interests of the citizens who they are elected to serve."

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

ecox@baltsun.com

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