Mayor Catherine Pugh’s willingness to beg, plead and cajole businesses and individuals to support key city priorities is one of our favorite things about her. She insists that everyone be a part of Baltimore’s revival, sometimes by asking them to contribute their effort and sometimes by asking them to contribute money. She doesn’t let the city’s limited funds limit her vision, and she doesn’t easily take no for an answer. Whether it’s the mobile job vans that she pitched during her campaign or buses to help city kids attend an anti-gun violence march in D.C., her advocacy has helped Baltimore do more than its tax base might otherwise allow.
But she needs to understand the risks of her request to loosen the ethics rules when it comes to raising funds from private individuals, business and groups who do business with the city. The people and institutions she’s hitting up for money may well have their own agendas, and they could seek to use their donations as a means to buy access or favorable treatment. At the very least, the public is going to be skeptical of any dealings the city has with those the mayor solicits. We don’t question Ms. Pugh’s intentions, but even if she is able to navigate those potential conflicts well, there is no guarantee that her successors will. Once the rules are loosened, they invite abuse sooner or later.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how things could go horribly wrong. They did, just a few years ago. During former mayor Shiela Dixon’s trial on corruption charges, prosecutors produced evidence that solicitations from Ms. Dixon to developers and others — including some with massive business before the city — produced a steady flow of gift cards, ostensibly for charity. Some of them wound up in Ms. Dixon’s pocket; others were completely unaccounted for.
Mayor Pugh isn’t talking about hitting people up for gift cards; she wants an exemption from rules that require her to get prior approval from the city Board of Ethics before soliciting funds for the Baltimore City Foundation, which provides extra funding for various programs and gives grants to non-profits. (Once upon a time, it also paid for an ice sculpture and a skating rink at Ms. Dixon’s inauguration, some of the most egregious examples of the lax controls over donations and expenditures The Sun documented in a 2008 investigation.)
What Mayor Pugh is trying to do may not be nearly so unseemly as what Ms. Dixon did, but it has the same pitfalls. Do prosective donors believe the gifts are the price of doing business with the city? Do they see them as the basis for a quid pro quo? Either is possible, and neither is good. Developer Pat Turner, who bought $1,000 worth of gift cards for Ms. Dixon, most of which she spent on herself and her family, testified at her trial that people in his line of work are utterly dependent on city approvals, without which they would go bankrupt. The potential for corruption, or at least the appearance of it, is palpable.
We understand that the prior approval rules could be cumbersome. If Ms. Pugh is speaking with a business owner about a city problem that his or her support could help fix, she isn’t going to want to pause the conversation until after she’s cleared things through the Ethics Board. But the truth is, we need more transparency around this process, not less. The Baltimore City Foundation isn’t currently required to reveal donors, so the public doesn’t know, for example, who put up the $100,000 to bus schoolchildren to the rally in Washington. But you can bet the mayor does, even if, as she says, she did not directly solicit the money. Might someone perceive that as an opportunity to leverage some advantage from City Hall? We’ll never know, and that kind of opacity only contributes to doubts about the city’s leadership.
And at the moment, there is reason for doubt. Given that the mayor was forced this week to own up to hiring a police commissioner who failed to file taxes for three years, we rather doubt the public’s concern is that her administration is being overly cautious. City Solicitor Andre Davis said this week that the administration would engage in a much stricter vetting process for those the mayor would hire to senior positions. It makes no sense at the same time to pursue a much looser policy for those the mayor would ask for money.
Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.