Baltimore City Councilwoman Helen Holton solicited $12,500 in campaign contributions from John Paterakis and Ronald Lipscomb, two developers who stood to benefit from decisions she made as chairwoman of the city's taxation and economic development committee. That was, at the very least, a violation of Maryland's legal limits on contributions to political campaigns and, at worst, outright influence peddling. Ms. Holton pleaded no contest this morning to the campaign finance violation, and we will probably never know what a jury would have made of State Prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh's contention that the solicitation amounted to bribery — two courts have found that her votes in favor of tax breaks for the developers could not be used as evidence.
Thus, the result of the criminal case is a light punishment — a $2,500 fine and a year of unsupervised probation. But there are legal questions, and then there are ethical questions. There is the matter of what evidence is allowed in court, and the matter of what standards the City Council will set for itself. Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young needs to reassure the community that the council does not condone such behavior, and the only meaningful way to do that is by stripping her of her committee chairwomanship.
When charges against Ms. Holton were first handed down by a grand jury, the council president at the time, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, set a clear and reasonable standard to ensure the council was not acting under any sort of cloud. She removed Ms. Holton from her chairwomanship but briefly restored her to the post after Judge Dennis M. Sweeny ruled that the bribery evidence was excluded under a longstanding legal principle that a lawmaker's legislative acts can't be used against her. Mr. Rohrbaugh brought new charges on the campaign finance violation, and Ms. Rawlings-Blake stripped her of her post again.
But when Mr. Young became council president last year, he put Ms. Holton back in the post. It was one of several moves that expanded the power of those who had backed him for council president and diminished the influence of those who had not. He said at the time that Ms. Holton was innocent until proven guilty and should be treated as such.
That is no longer the case. Now she has pleaded no contest, in essence admitting to her guilt. A spokesman for Mr. Young said the council president plans to speak with Ms. Holton personally before announcing his response, but the only action he can take that would show real consequences for Ms. Holton's conduct would be to remove her from her committee post. Any kind of admonishment short of that would be a slap on the wrist.
Mr. Young should also refer the matter to the city's ethics board — which has not taken any action in the matter — and should direct the council to initiate its own investigation. The city charter gives the council the power to police its own members — by a three-quarters vote, a council member may be removed from office. Such a step may be an extreme response to the campaign finance violation to which Ms. Holton pleaded no contest, but the legislative immunity that spared Ms. Holton trial on more serious charges in criminal court need not apply to the council's decisions on whether or how to discipline its own members. Ms. Holton's day in court is over, but she still hasn't answered to the public for her conduct.