Anne Arundel County budgeted $230,000 this year for ethics oversight. Montgomery County allocated $460,000. Prince George’s County approved $854,000.
And Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. proposed a rewrite of the county’s ethics laws after taking office in December that the county council supported, including creating an Office of Ethics and Accountability. The county’s budget for the coming year includes $163,000 for the new office.
But in the city of Baltimore, where the mayor resigned in the midst of multiple investigations into her financial dealings, the budget was $0.
No city staff are dedicated to enforcing ethics rules and the word “ethics” appears nowhere in the city’s 1,035-page budget proposal for the coming year.
Instead, the six-member staff of the Department of Legislative Reference must spend part of their time assisting the city’s volunteer ethics board, processing disclosure forms, answering questions from city employees and investigating complaints.
The ethics board has subpoena power, but no investigator to make use of the power.
Linda “Lu” Pierson, the chairwoman of the board, said she is working to secure dedicated funds, calling the city’s current setup “insufficient.”
“Whenever we ask the staff to do investigations or projects or whatever we ask them to do, we’re basically asking people who have other full-time jobs to do this work,” Pierson said.
In April, the ethics board voted to open an investigation into then-Mayor Catherine Pugh’s sales of her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s books, many of which involved entities doing business with the city.
Pierson said the legislative reference staff initially did some work on the review only to conclude it likely overlapped with separate investigations by the state and the city’s inspector general.
“It makes more sense to let trained investigators do this investigation than have department of legislative reference staff do it,” she said.
Pierson said the ethics board is considering ways to strengthen the city’s rules after Pugh’s resignation. But that work would be easier, she said, with a dedicated staff person who could research how other cities seek to avoid conflicts of interest.
The City Council also is considering several bills to make changes to the city’s ethics oversight operation. One would place the ethics board under the Inspector General’s Office, which is the agency with the greatest independence from the rest of city government.
Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming said she would take on the responsibility if it came with additional resources — she recommended one or two staff members.
“Professional focus on this integral part of government could be a future game-changer,” Cumming said.