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News Opinion Editorial

Flunking Government Ethics 101

Politicians are a lot like middle school students. The moment you think they are mature and thoughtful enough to do the responsible thing, they are bound to disappoint. As any experienced parent or president of the United States will tell you, better to "trust but verify."

The wisdom of this was made abundantly clear by the recent disclosure that Baltimore County Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver has been working for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. On its face, that would not seem to be all that big a deal (it's not like he was caught spying for the former Soviet Union or selling drugs on the courthouse lawn) but, in fact, it's a remarkably flagrant violation of the county charter.

The charter explicitly prohibits council members from employment by the state or county, directly or indirectly, and has done so for 50 years. Mr. Oliver had to have been aware of this, as just three years ago he voted to rescind that provision of the law.

County voters, on the other hand, had other ideas about the day jobs of council members. They rejected that particular amendment to the charter in 2008 by a greater than 25,000-vote margin, keeping the ban on state or county employment. To the best of our knowledge, this result was not kept secret from county residents or Mr. Oliver.

We can certain feel for Mr. Oliver's position, particularly the potential loss of the $62,700 salary that came with the state job. And he no doubt recalls that at least two previous members of the council, Vincent J. Gardina and Wayne M. Skinner, held state jobs while in office without anyone protesting — but only because that provision of the charter had apparently been forgotten at the time.

Mr. Oliver must now voluntarily quit his job or resign from the council. It should not require enforcement action from his fellow elected officials (particularly as it's not clear at the moment exactly how the charter provision would be upheld under that circumstance).

But here's the rub. The violation was only uncovered because of the investigative efforts of Patch.com's Bryan Sears, who first brought it to light. That the councilman's employment situation wasn't made public months ago — as he took the job in February — is testament to how government ethics and the concept of government transparency seldom keep company.

This is a point recently made by Common Cause Maryland, which is advocating to have the financial disclosure forms of state legislators made available online. The group brought up the idea for that straightforward and sensible change in light of the current federal bribery trial of Sen. Ulysses Currie, who had a lucrative deal with Shoppers Food Warehouse and lobbied on its behalf without ever disclosing his employment.

Disclose, disclose, disclose. This is not only a critical requirement of democratically elected government but a protection of those who serve as well. In the age of the Internet, there's simply no excuse for doing anything less.

Yet to find out about a legislator's employment now requires a person to travel to the State Ethics Commission and make a formal request to see financial disclosure forms, giving one's name and address in the process. Why? Could it be to discourage "prying" eyes? Most states already make such documents available online. Baltimore County also requires its elected officials to disclose their financial affairs, but it doesn't publish the forms online either.

Mr. Oliver has run afoul of the law before. Two years ago, he pleaded guilty to pocketing $2,300 given to his political campaign and was sentenced to six months of probation and 50 hours of community service. Voters returned him to office last year despite this.

But at least the voters of his district were aware of his actions. How much misbehavior is unknown because the electorate is kept in the dark? Transparency requires something more than lip service from politicians who support that goal only when it serves their purposes — revealing the campaign contributions of their potential opponents, for instance.

Better to take the Common Cause idea one step further and form bipartisan study groups at the state and local level to recommend reforms that might better harness the power of information technology to allow everyone to keep track of what's going on in government. Not press releases or puffery, but financial disclosures, employment data, and budgets and legislation line by line. The state legislature recently impaneled a committee to consider ways to make government more transparent. We hope this issue will be on its agenda.

Just as a parent must make sure a 12-year-old is eating right or paying attention in class, it takes thousands of us to raise a politician — or at least make sure he or she is not violating the law. Even in these financially challenging times, that is a worthwhile investment, as the alternative of leaving them all unsupervised is always far more costly.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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