Howard County Executive Calvin Ball is being investigated following allegations that he used the county seal for political gain — a violation of local law, a local Republican says.
The allegations of wrongdoing stem from two separate complaints Ellicott City resident Kenneth Aldrich filed with the Howard County Ethics Commission.
However, the alleged infractions likely won’t lead to a criminal prosecution because it is outside the statute of limitations, county state’s attorney spokeswoman Yolonda Vazquez said in an email.
At issue is a 2015 video posted to Ball’s political Facebook page in which the then-county councilman explains his commitment to the Democratic Party while standing in front of the Howard County seal in a hearing room in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.
A county law passed in 2004 makes it illegal for government officials to use the county seal for “any political purpose” including, but not limited to, mailers and handouts.
“We have seen there is a complaint filed, and we are going through the process of evaluating the complaint,” Ball said.
The video, which remains live on Ball’s political Facebook page, is titled “Here’s why I’m a committed Democrat. What makes you proud to be part of our team?”
“I’m a Democrat because we’re the party of opportunity," Ball says in the video. “We work to create opportunity for those parents who just want to make lives better for their children than they were for them."
“I think I’m a Democrat because we are the party who can disagree without being disagreeable,” he adds. "We can really fight for our values but still be civil and make sure we can work together for others.”
Aldrich, who is a Republican, asked Chief Administrative Officer Lonnie Robbins to retain outside counsel to review the allegations because of his connection to Ball, who oversees Robbins and his office.
In a statement, Robbins said the administration is “aware of the allegations concerning the seal, and the process for handling the complaint is being followed, including review of the request for an outside reviewer.”
The statute allows for the chief administrative officer, an office Robbins also occupied when the video was posted in 2015, to give written exemption to the law. Robbins declined to say if he gave Ball exemption.
A county official tied to the ethics commission would neither confirm nor deny it had received Aldrich’s complaint or whether the allegations are being investigated. A receipt provided by Aldrich shows the ethics complaint was delivered Sept. 3.
The criminal penalty for violating this statute is deemed a misdemeanor. Offenders face up to five months in jail and/or fines of $1,000 for “each occurrence.”
Vazquez said in an email that prosecutions for an alleged offense like this, a misdemeanor, could occur within one year after the offense was committed, but that time has passed.
As part of his filing, Aldrich alleged Ball broke another law that makes it illegal for government workers to “intentionally” use the “prestige of office or public position for the private gain,” either for oneself or on behalf of another county official.
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“Ball clearly made this video to assist his pursuit of higher office [and a higher salary] since at the time of the video, he was prohibited from seeking re-election to the County Council,” Aldrich wrote.
Beginning in December 2018, a council member’s salary is $66,174 per year. The chairperson receives an additional $3,500 annually. Ball’s current salary is $195,800.
The law that prohibits using the county seal for political purposes was passed by the County Council in 2004. The measure, formally supported by former council members Guy Guzzone, Ken Ulman, Christopher Merdon and David Rakes, was signed into law by then-County Executive James Robey.
The change in law was prompted by action from Ellicott City Republican Merdon, who, according to previous Baltimore Sun reporting, sent letters bearing the county seal to liquor license holders seeking campaign contributions.
In a phone interview, Aldrich said he likely would have never filed these complaints if it were not for Ball’s failed attempt to make Howard County a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants.
Since as early as the mid-1990s, Howard County has maintained a lucrative detention contract with federal immigration entities. Ball’s proposal to make Howard a sanctuary would have exempted the county’s contract with ICE that has, since mid-2013, generated more than $14 million in revenue, according to Jack Kavanagh, director of the detention facility. Ball previously declined to comment on the county’s contract with ICE.
“This is the first time he did this, so maybe they’ll be lenient,” Aldrich said. “I just wanted him to get the message that he needs to stick to the rules.”