Baltimore’s ethics panel has unanimously rejected Mayor Catherine Pugh’s request to be exempted from rules that bar city employees from raising money for charitable causes without prior approval.
Pugh was seeking a waiver from the city’s ethics regulations so she could solicit funds from private donors that would help pay for her administration’s social programs and other community initiatives.
The five-member Board of Ethics debated the mayor’s request over the course of several months before concluding at a meeting this week that it was unwilling to grant a blanket exception to Pugh, who could still seek waivers on a case-by-case basis.
“After in-depth discussion and deliberation, the Board of Ethics unanimously concluded that it could not grant a plenary waiver of its standard, citywide restrictions and procedures for solicitations of this sort,” board chairwoman Linda “Lu” Pierson wrote in a letter dated Sept. 6.
The letter was addressed to City Solicitor Andre Davis, who has been handling the mayor’s request. He could not immediately be reached for comment.
The board regularly grants city employees exemptions from the fundraising rules, but only for specific programs or charities that are named in advance. Pugh wanted broader authority to raise money for causes of her choosing without having to go through the process of seeking prior approval in each instance.
Pugh’s office said she needed the new fundraising powers to bolster the city’s existing budget. In recent months the city has relied on charitable donations to fund the anti-violence Roca program; pay for buses for students to attend a rally against gun violence in Washington; and to deploy a jobs van that travels across the city to help unemployed residents find work. In each case, the mayor’s office has said she didn’t solicit any funds or violate the ethics rules.
Board member Stephan Fogleman said he was concerned that the waiver the mayor sought would have made it difficult for the public to know what she was raising money for.
“Taking the ethics board out of the equation for the chief executive of the city didn't sit well with me,” he said. “Mayors Schaefer, Schmoke, O’Malley and Rawlings-Blake were able to raise funds for great causes and didn't need an ethics blanket waiver to do it.”
The other members of the board could either not be reached for comment or declined to discuss their reasoning for rejecting the mayor’s request.
Pierson wrote that the panel would be willing to work with the mayor’s office on developing an exemption that “covers a broad range of target programs.”
The ethics rules are designed to ensure that city employees don’t give donors special treatment if they contribute to favored causes. They are also designed to guard against officials putting pressure on people who conduct business with the city.
When the board grants an exemption to the rules, the city employee or elected official raising money is required to file reports on who was solicited and what donations were made.
Fogleman said those disclosures are not always filed. The board voted Wednesday not to grant renewals to employees or agencies until their transparency filings are up to date, he said.
In May, Davis set out his request for the waiver in a letter to the ethics board. In it he wrote that the mayor would not specifically target anyone who did business with the city and would emphasize that donating was not a route to “special access or favored treatment.”
Pierson wrote that those assurances were “rather standard” and are included in applications for “even the simplest of solicitation programs.”
Damon Effingham, the director of watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, said he was glad the ethics board had rejected the mayor’s request.
“I don't think they had such exigent circumstances that required getting ethics waivers,” Effingham said. “Reducing ethical responsibilities at any level is a bad idea.”
Davis had proposed using the Baltimore City Foundation to manage the money. The nonprofit is legally independent of city government but uses staff in the city’s finance department to perform some of its work and has an office in a government suite.
Pierson wrote to Davis that “it would be especially helpful if the Foundation were to promptly correct and update” its policies and procedures.
The Baltimore City Foundation has been the subject of controversy in the past after an investigation by The Baltimore Sun found that money it controlled was used to pay for an ice sculpture and skating rink at former Mayor Sheila Dixon’s inaugural party and skirt competitive bidding rules for a project at the Cylburn Arboretum.
Dixon’s successor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, imposed new rules on the foundation in 2011. The rules, adopted by the Board of Estimates, included a requirement that city agencies that had money managed by the foundation write annual reports about how the money was used.
The rule has not been followed in recent years, according to Lenwood Ivey, the foundation’s executive director. He said the reports were produced after the rules were first adopted but “we discontinued that because it didn’t serve the purpose that we wanted.”