Practices, perks of council members raise ethics issues

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For the dozens of candidates trying to win seats on the Baltimore City Council, victory may bring more than the prestige of elective office. As the incumbents know, the job has its privileges as well.

Public documents and interviews reveal that a majority of council members have hired relatives as paid assistants and the entire council receives gifts, such as free parking and movie passes, not enjoyed by most Baltimoreans.

Some of these practices and perks appear to violate the city's ethics law or breach codes of conduct that state how members are expected to behave.

Financial records show that 10 of 19 council members have hired a son, daughter, sister, brother, niece or, in one case, a mother-in-law to serve as paid assistants - for a total of $282,163 in budgeted annual salaries.

In addition, council members - who earn $48,000 a year - get free entry to the garages of a parking company that is asking the council for a tax break and receive free tickets to movies and events.

"It sounds like they have the keys to the city," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, an ethics watchdog organization. The council members' positions, Browning said, "have created a special class of citizen."

Appropriate conduct for City Council members is spelled out in two sets of rules: the city ethics law, which can carry fines if violated, and the council's code of conduct, adopted in 1995, which recommends standards of behavior but imposes no penalties.

The hiring of family members breaches the code of conduct, and a few of the hirings appear to violate the ethics law - although none has been investigated by the city Board of Ethics.

Many of the council members' reasons for believing the hires and gifts are permissible demonstrate confusion.

'Everybody does it'

"Everybody does it, so I didn't know there was anything wrong with it," Councilwoman Pamela V. Carter said. "No one has ever said anything to me that it was against the ethics law."

A city Ethics Board report explaining a bill before the council to revise the ethics law acknowledges confusion about the provision that covers the hiring of relatives.

"The current law is a paradigm, if not a parody, of obtusely written statutory prose," the report says. "In this revision, efforts have been made to revise provisions of this sort in a way that will be readable and understandable by the persons subject to them."

Of the 10 council members with relatives on their payrolls, the three who have hired their siblings - council President Sheila Dixon and council members John K. Cain and Carter - seem to be in violation of the ethics law.

Six council members employ adult sons and daughters - employment permitted by the ethics law that would be prohibited if the revisions are approved.

The gifts received by the council are equally questionable under the ethics law and the code of conduct. The Baltimore Zoo, the 1st Mariner Arena and the Senator Theatre provide free passes. Arrow Parking Inc. gives all council members complimentary cards for short-term parking at its 12 city garages.

Arrow Parking is involved in a joint venture seeking a tax break from the council for a new 500-space garage on West Fayette Street.

Accepting gifts from an entity with business before the council is prohibited by the ethics law. All council members confirmed in interviews that they receive the parking passes, and many said they use them.

"That's interesting," Dixon said of Arrow Parking's involvement in the West Fayette Street deal. "We should just give [the parking cards] back."

The ethics law is enforceable by civil penalties through Circuit Court - if the city solicitor, at the city Ethics Board's request, determines that violations have occurred.

'Potential conflicts'

"I think those gifts are potential conflicts," said former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, who recently left the city Ethics Board to join the state's equivalent. "It's not proper for elected officials to have close relatives on the payroll. It would be in the public interest to have that practice banned."

While the city's ethics law does not directly prohibit nepotism, its conflict-of-interest provision states that elected officials cannot make decisions that have a financial impact on a "spouse, parent, minor child, brother, or sister." Because council members control their office budgets, hiring of assistants would fall under this provision, ethics officials said.

By those standards, council members can hire their sons and daughters so long as they are older than 18. Brothers, sisters, spouses and parents are not allowed.

"I did not know that," said Dixon, whose sister is a part-time staff member for the council president. "There are some things that are not really clear."

Some council members acknowledged the nepotism on the financial disclosure forms that all candidates were required to file by July 10. In other cases, council members disclosed hiring relatives in interviews.

Who's hired relatives

Council members employing adult sons or daughters include Kwame Osayaba Abayomi, Paula Johnson Branch, Carter, Lois A. Garey, Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Agnes Welch. Other hires include Councilman Robert W. Curran's niece and Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr.'s mother-in-law.

Specifically:

Carter is the only council member who has hired more than one relative. Her brother, Sidney Carter, earns $25,665 as a council assistant and has been on the payroll since April last year. Her daughter, Tanya Carter, earns the same salary and has held the position since July last year, payroll records indicate. She also has worked as a Baltimore sheriff's radio dispatcher since 1995 and earns $29,421 in that job.

Dixon's sister, Janice Dixon, is budgeted to earn $30,900, records show. The council president wrote in her financial disclosure form that Janice Dixon "works for me part-time as a 'special projects' assistant in my office." Dixon's campaign consultant, Cheryl Benton, said Janice Dixon works hourly and makes half of her budgeted salary. Records show that the president's sister appeared on the payroll in August 1990, three years after Sheila Dixon was first elected to the council. Janice Dixon is also the treasurer for her sister's re-election campaign.

Cain's sister, Ottolie McJilton, earns $26,766 as a council assistant and first appeared on the payroll in October 2000.

Abayomi, Branch and Welch employ their sons as council assistants.

Abayomi's son, Norman Handy Jr., is paid $25,665 and has been on the payroll since January, replacing Abayomi's wife, Carolyn K. Handy.

Branch said her son, Antonio Branch, is her assistant. He earns $25,665, payroll records show, and has worked since Sept. 16 last year.

Welch's disclosure statement says that her "adult son" is "employed as my councilmanic aide." William Welch Jr., a former liquor board member, is paid $31,402 and first appeared on the city payroll in 1988.

Garey and Young employ their daughters as assistants.

When asked whether she employed any relatives, Garey said, "I don't have anyone who lives with me who works for me." She added: "My daughter does work for me - part time, very part time." Garey's daughter, Carol Fournier, earns $25,665 and has been on the payroll since January last year.

Young said his daughter, Teaira Young, works as his assistant and committee clerk. She earns $32,636, payroll records show, and first appeared on the payroll in 1998.

Curran said his niece, Virginia Milanicz, works as a committee clerk earning $2,000. She has been on the payroll since 1992.

Harris said he employs his mother-in-law, Sallie Barnes, as a council assistant. She makes $30,134, records show, and has been on city payroll since December 1999.

Melvin L. Stukes said his goddaughter, Kenya Campbell, is a council assistant in his office. She makes $30,636 and has worked for him since August 2000.

Norman E. Parker Jr., chairman of the city's Ethics Board, referred questions about the ethics law to Avery Aisenstark, director of the city's Department of Legislative Reference, which staffs the board and which drafted the proposed revisions to the ethics law.

Aisenstark said he would not comment on specific cases from The Sun's review without the Ethics Board's approval for an investigation, but he said that the board may have to consider investigating the hiring of relatives and the acceptance of gifts.

Dixon said she has scheduled a meeting with Aisenstark to discuss the ethics law and the proposed revisions.

Confused about law

Most council members expressed the same confusion as Dixon about the ethics law, saying that they believed they were allowed to hire relatives if they did not live with them. That interpretation has been reinforced by financial disclosure rules that require elected officials to report only children who are minors and spouses with city jobs.

Council members also say that they need to hire people they can trust.

"Your staff is key to your delivering services," said Stukes. "If you can't bring people in you trust, you have a problem."

Carter agreed: "It's about who can you trust to have your back. Everybody has family working down here."

The council's code of conduct is more definitive than the ethics law, stating: "No member of the city government ... shall provide to any person any special advantage affecting the rights or prospects of that person with respect to city employment."

That means that relatives are not supposed to have an advantage in being hired. Aisenstark said hiring relatives could give the impression of favoritism in employment.

Council members who said they do not employ relatives include Vice President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake, Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., Helen L. Holton, Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., Catherine E. Pugh, Edward L. Reisinger, Lisa Joi Stancil and Rochelle "Rikki" Spector. Some were critical of their colleagues.

"What do you call that? Nepotism," said Reisinger said. "Nobody in my family works for me at all."

"I do not believe in nepotism," Mitchell said. "I just see all kinds of problems, so I stay clear of any family members working on my staff."

The revisions to the ethics rules have been three years in the making. Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration submitted the ethics law revisions bill - titled "raising the bar" - to the council July 14.

Proposed revisions

If approved, the proposed ethics law revisions would modify the definition of "family" by replacing "minor child" with "child," thereby prohibiting council members from hiring adult children, in addition to spouses, parents and siblings. Hearings on the bill are expected to be scheduled in late September, city officials said.

An Ethics Board report regarding the revisions explains that the changes are intended to partially emulate more stringent state rules.

The state ethics law includes as family spouse, parent or stepparent, stepsibling, stepchild, foster child and ward, mother-in-law and father-in-law, son-in-law and daughter-in-law, and grandparent and grandchild.

The state's law specifically prohibits nepotism, saying legislators "may not employ" their relatives or the relatives of other legislators. And under the state's standard, all the relatives currently employed by council members, except Curran's niece and Stukes' goddaughter, would be prohibited.

The city's ethics law would also make minor adjustments to rules prohibiting the acceptance of certain gifts, such as zoo, movie and arena tickets.

Council members vary in their use of these perks, according to interviews. Dixon said she uses the zoo pass more than the others; Curran said he saw Titanic at the Senator; Carter said she recently attended Anita Baker's show at 1st Mariner Arena.

The ethics law prohibits such gifts if the organizations do business with the council or are expected to do business with the council, and these organizations would appear to do business with the city.

In April, the council approved a bill to allow billboards to be installed on the 1st Mariner Arena. Edwin F. Hale, owner of the Baltimore Blast soccer team, wanted to sell space on the city-owned arena to offset his team's financial losses. The city subsidizes the zoo with more than $3 million, and the city has also guaranteed loans to the Senator Theatre.

Still, the passes might fall under exceptions in the ethics law that allow the acceptance of tickets to cultural or sporting events, as long as the passes are extended as a courtesy to all council members. In interviews, all council members said they received the same three complimentary passes. They said they rarely use them, give them to staff or award them to constituents.

While the tickets likely fall under the ethics law exception, none appears to meet the higher standards of the code of conduct, which read: "Employees shall not ask for or accept more favorable treatment than other residents in Baltimore."

Said Lapides, the former city Ethics Board member: "The zoo doesn't bother me, but the free parking does. They should pay for it like any other citizen."

Acceptance of the Arrow Parking passes potentially poses the greatest likelihood of ethics law violations. The company does not operate any city-owned garages, but its vice president, Ben Greenwald, came before the council in 2001 to protest an increase in a parking tax proposed by Dixon. Greenwald said his company does not do business with the council, and he said he was unaware that a bill involving Arrow has been introduced in the council.

Arrow Parking is part of a joint venture that has asked the council to approve a $2.9 million property tax break for the construction of a downtown parking garage.

"We've been doing this for 15 years," Greenwald said of distributing the cards to council members. "This isn't something we started yesterday."

"It's a courtesy to elected officials and friends so they can conveniently park on a short-term basis," Greenwald said.

Council members, however, already have councilmanic plates that allow them to park without paying while conducting city business, they said.

In addition, the council approved a bill in May that increases fines for parking meter violations. Curran, who introduced the bill, said he sees no problem with raising meter fines while receiving free parking at garages.

"You think I'm in cahoots with the parking garages?" Curran said, laughing. "You think council members are avoiding parking tickets by parking in garages?"

Before she knew of Arrow's bill before the council, Dixon said: "[Arrow] has done that for years. I've used it maybe once in a blue moon or near the Lexington Market. It's short-term."

"These passes have all been available since I've been here," said Cain, a councilman since 1991.

"I was never comfortable with the Arrow Parking pass," Cain said. "You never know when someone is going to come before you for an approval."

In an article Sunday about members of Baltimore's City Council hiring relatives as assistants, the son of Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch was mistakenly identified. His name is Antonio Johnson.The Sun regrets the error.
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