Convicted sex offender fights to keep real estate license

A longtime real estate agent who is a convicted sex offender is fighting the decision to revoke his professional license, arguing that his crimes were unrelated to his work as a real estate broker.

His case, argued Wednesday before the state Court of Appeals, could have broader implications for licensing boards in various fields. The opinion could instruct the panels on how to evaluate the many factors that state law says they must consider when granting or revoking the professional licenses of convicted felons.

"The broader issue is what, if any, limitations are there … to regulate those who hold a license?" said University of Baltimore law professor Byron Warnken, who has no connection to the case.

But, he said, depending on how the court rules and because state law changed in 2009, the court's ruling may have a limited impact.

The agent, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to sexually abusing young relatives, served a one-year jail term and was placed on the state's sex offender registry. The Baltimore Sun is not naming the agent because doing so might identify the victims, and The Sun does not name victims of sexual abuse.

The Real Estate Commission revoked the man's license in 2008, saying that his convictions "undermine his trustworthiness in dealing with public" and are a blot on "his character and reputation." That decision has been upheld by two courts.

The commission is one of two dozen licensing boards, made up of industry and consumer members, in the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Under state law, they exist to protect both consumers and the licensees. While each board has regulations specific to its area — from cosmetology to engineering — each requires license holders to be trustworthy.

The man's lawyer, Nancy Forster, argued that a conviction for sex crimes against family members has no bearing on her client's trustworthiness in his profession.

"I don't think he should be sanctioned at all," Forster told the Court of Appeals on Wednesday.

The commission, Forster argued, was wrong to leap to the conclusion that the man is a potential menace to others, despite hearing opinions from three counselors that he poses no danger and after the man received stellar references from others. The nature of the crimes seemed to trump all else, she said.

However, the state argued that the board acted to protect consumers. If the panel let him keep his license and he committed another sex crime, "the public is going to be in an uproar," Assistant Attorney General Jessica B. Kaufman told the judges.

That remark received a quick reaction from Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. Suppose a judge wanted to avoid criticism when handing out a sentence that might to the public seem lenient. "But I don't want my name on the front page of the Sunpapers, so I am imposing the maximum sentence," he said.

Murphy was among four of the seven judges who appeared to disagree with the decision to revoke the agent's license. He noted that none of the agent's crimes occurred at a house he was listing or showing, and other judges said that, given that children can't buy or sell houses, it was hard to imagine that he'd be alone with children on the job.

The Real Estate Commission would not comment on this specific case, but spokesman Michael Raia said that the panel's responsibility "does extend beyond professional violations, especially when our courts determine that our licensees violate the public's trust with egregious actions."

In 2009, a state law was passed to encourage employment of nonviolent ex-offenders. The law doesn't apply to the agent, however, because he was convicted of a crime of violence and because the decision to revoke his license was made in 2008, nearly a year before the law took effect.

The agent molested three girls over more than 15 years, continued to sexually abuse at least one after he apologized to her, and did not seek therapy on his own, according to arguments made by the attorney general's office. Other adults were sometimes in the house when he inappropriately touched the children. The man is working from his Glen Burnie home as a sales agent, a lower position than a real estate broker, while the revocation is pending.

J. Peter Sabonis, an advocate for low-income and homeless people, said criminal convictions in general haunt people for decades and are well-known job barriers. Beyond that, he said, there is "hysteria around sex offenders."

"In dealing with public licensing authorities, a sex offense is like a death penalty," he said.

The court has no deadline for issuing a ruling.