Baltimore County officials acknowledged Monday that a top county employee erred in sending county employees an email encouraging them to attend County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's announcement Monday of his bid for governor.
Kamenetz launched his campaign at midday on the steps of the Historic Courthouse in Towson, saying he's the best Democrat to take on the Republican incumbent, Gov. Larry Hogan.
Don Mohler, Kamenetz's chief of staff, said county IT Director Rob Stradling got "overly exuberant" when he emailed employees Friday to encourage them to attend the event, and said county employees would be reminded to keep political activity separate from government work.
"You can't blend the government workday with political work," Mohler said.
He said he planned to ask IT officials to search emails to see if anyone else has improperly discussed campaigns while on county time.
Stradling wrote to his employees on Friday: "I am encouraging full participation to support our County Executive as he makes this very important announcement."
He followed up with an email Sunday: "To clarify my email regarding Monday's announcement by the County Executive, if you choose to attend, you will need to use your personal leave time or attend on your lunch hour."
Using government email to encourage attendance at a campaign event during the workday risks violating campaign finance or ethics laws, said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland.
"Any elected official wears two hats: their candidate hat and their elected official hat. They're never supposed to wear both hats at the same time," Bevan-Dangel said.
She said it's acceptable to encourage government employees to attend events related to government work, such as kicking off a new program or announcing grants.
Government employees are allowed to support and volunteer on political campaigns. But they need to do that on personal time, not government time, Bevan-Dangel said.
"You have to be careful how you engage in campaigns," she said. "Not that you can't, but you can't do it on public time."
Bevan-Dangel said because the email came from a county employee — not Kamenetz himself as the candidate — it likely would fall to the county's ethics commission to investigate and consider any sanctions.
The Maryland Republican Party was quick to criticize Kamenetz for Stradling's email.
"You know you're off to a rough start when your very first act as a candidate lands you in hot water for a likely ethics violation," said Dirk Haire, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party.
Haire said the email was a problem even though it was an employee — not Kamenetz himself or the campaign — who sent it.
Kamenetz is the seventh Democrat to jump into the race for governor in hopes of unseating Hogan.
In his comments Monday, Kamenetz pitched himself as someone who "tells it like it is" and would be a hard-working governor. He touted his record of improving schools and promoting job growth as county executive and, before that, as county councilman.
And he said he'd be the best candidate to face Hogan and stand up to Republican President Donald J. Trump.
"I am the best Democrat in this race to take on Larry Hogan and take back our state from the likes of Donald Trump, Paul Ryan and Jeff Sessions," Kamenetz said. Those men are "taking our country and our state in the wrong direction," he said.
Kamenetz said Trump has led a "reign of terror" while Hogan has stood by and done little to protect Marylanders. Hogan has a "do-nothing" approach to governing full of "empty policies," he said.
Kamenetz noted he signed an executive order that emphasizes that police officers and county workers should not ask people they encounter about their immigration or citizenship status.
Kamenetz was joined by his wife, Jill, and his teenage sons, Karson and Dylan. Behind him stood dozens of supporters carrying purple campaign signs. There also were some county employees in the audience.
The primary is next June, followed by the general election in November 2018.