Ethics board to investigate Dixon actions

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore's Board of Ethics will investigate City Council President Sheila Dixon's involvement in several official meetings that appear to have benefited the firm that employs her sister Janice, the board's chairman said yesterday.

The five-member ethics board is scheduled to meet Feb. 21 and will begin examining whether Dixon acted properly during a City Council committee hearing last week and three Board of Estimates meetings over the past two years.

"Then we have to decide what, if any, action is called for on our behalf," said Robert L. Bogomolny, the ethics board chairman and University of Baltimore president.

Such actions range from essentially telling Dixon to stop any unethical behavior to asking a court to fine her. The board can also refer the matter to other authorities, who can seek more severe discipline.

Yesterday Dixon -- who would automatically become mayor should Martin O'Malley succeed in his campaign for governor -- was set to issue a statement.

Instead, her spokesman, Chris Williams, said Dixon had retained an attorney who advised her not to say anything once the ethics board's decision to investigate was confirmed.

The city's ethics law prohibits public officials from participating in "any matter" that involves a sibling's interest or the interest of a relative's employer. The law says officials must recuse themselves from such matters if they know of the sibling's job. In addition, the law requires officials to disclose if a sibling works for a company that does business with the city or is regulated by the city.

This is not the first time Dixon has faced a review by the city's ethics board. In November 2003, Dixon fired her sister from the council president's payroll after the board ruled that Janice Dixon's employment violated the ethics law.

On Monday, The Sun disclosed that Dixon participated last Thursday in a council committee hearing held to determine whether Comcast of Baltimore has honored the terms of its cable television franchise by hiring minority subcontractors.

At the hearing, Dixon asked Comcast why it was no longer subcontracting with specific minority firms -- including Union Technologies, which employs her sister. But the president never disclosed her sibling's job during the hearing, nor did she do so in her financial disclosure filing with the ethics board.

In a new development, the councilwoman who chaired the meeting, Helen L. Holton, said it was Dixon who first suggested the idea for the hearing at a council luncheon last month.

The Sun also reported this week that Dixon, despite assertions to the contrary, did not abstain from voting at three Board of Estimates meetings in the past two years on contracts that ultimately awarded nearly $1 million to Union Technologies, also known as Utech.

The firm is regulated by the city's Minority and Women's Business Opportunity Office. The office has certified the firm as a "minority and women business enterprise" since 2000. The certification makes the company eligible to be hired as a subcontractor to help companies meet the city's rules on hiring minorities and women.

Dixon amended her financial disclosure statement Monday after The Sun reported the potential conflict. Dixon's new report says that her sister has worked for Utech since February 2004 as "operations manager." The company has four permanent employees, according to city records.

Janice Dixon worked part time for the company before that date, according to Dixon's chief of staff, Beatrice Tripps. But Tripps said she did not know for exactly how long. Neither the council president's sister nor Utech's president, Mildred E. Boyer, has returned multiple phone messages since last Thursday.

Comcast officials said the cable company began its relationship with Utech in 2003 and stopped using the fiber-optic cable firm in November, three months before last week's council hearing.

In interviews this week, Sheila Dixon denied violating the ethics law despite filing the amended disclosure form. She said she had mentioned several companies during the Comcast hearing, not just Utech, and she insisted she has regularly abstained from voting on contracts involving Utech at the Board of Estimates meetings, where she serves as chairwoman.

"I abstain when they come before the Board of Estimates," Dixon said repeatedly.

A review of Board of Estimates records shows that Dixon voted three times -- July 21, 2004; May 11, 2005; and Nov. 9, 2005 -- on contracts that included her sister's firm. Dixon's first two votes helped to extend a computer network contract with TeleCommunications Systems, a publicly traded firm headquartered in Annapolis that employed Utech as a subcontractor. In November, Dixon cast the lone "no" vote against the contract's renewal.

Ultimately, Utech was awarded nearly $1 million through the board's actions, according to board transcripts. Dixon's spokesman, Williams, said the council president participated because her staff did not alert her to the involvement of her sister's firm.

Holton said the impetus for last week's council committee hearing looking into Comcast's dealings with its minority subcontractors came from Dixon during a council lunch work session last month. Holton subsequently introduced the resolution calling for the hearing at the council's Jan. 23 meeting.

"She first mentioned it to me in casual conversation. She said, 'We haven't heard anything from Comcast since the franchise agreement had been done' [in December 2004]," Holton said. "It hadn't crossed my mind before she mentioned it."

Holton said she did not know Dixon's sister worked for Utech.

Williams said it was possible that Dixon first suggested the hearing. He reiterated what Dixon said at the hearing -- that the president had received several calls from firms that were no longer getting subcontracting work from Comcast.

If the board determines that a violation has occurred this time it can take several actions, according to city code: issue a reprimand, issue a cease-and-desist order of the action causing a violation, seek judicial relief, or refer the matter to other authorities for further disciplinary action, "including censure or removal."

The city's charter authorizes the council, by a two-thirds vote, to remove the council president for "incompetency, willful neglect of duty or misdemeanor in office." But such action can occur only if the mayor calls for it and only after a council hearing.

The board may also petition the circuit court to compel compliance with ethics rules. The court may issue its own cease-and-desist order or impose a civil penalty of up to $1,000 for each day a violation occurred.

In addition, the court may void an official act of a public servant that involved a proven conflict of interest. Such a move is unlikely in this case because it must occur within 90 days of the unethical behavior. The Board of Estimates votes all occurred more than three months ago, and no official actions were taken during last week's council hearing.

The court cannot void contracts approved by the Board of Estimates without the board's consent. The board itself may void the contract for most of the same reasons as the court, including a determination that the conflict had an impact on the contract.

That is unlikely because the board would have to determine that it knew of Janice Dixon's involvement.

If the ethics board believes a criminal offense has been committed, it must refer the matter to the appropriate authority.

doug.donovan@baltsun.com

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