Baltimore City Councilwoman Helen Holton solicited $12,500 in campaign contributions from John Paterakis and Ronald Lipscomb, two developers who stood to benefit from decisions she made as chairwoman of the city's taxation and economic development committee. That was, at the very least, a violation of Maryland's legal limits on contributions to political campaigns and, at worst, outright influence peddling. Ms. Holton pleaded no contest this morning to the campaign finance violation, and we will probably never know what a jury would have made of State Prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh's contention that the solicitation amounted to bribery — two courts have found that her votes in favor of tax breaks for the developers could not be used as evidence.
Thus, the result of the criminal case is a light punishment — a $2,500 fine and a year of unsupervised probation. But there are legal questions, and then there are ethical questions. There is the matter of what evidence is allowed in court, and the matter of what standards the City Council will set for itself. Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young had to reassure the community that the council does not condone such behavior, and his decision to strip her of her committee chairwomanship was the right one.
When charges against Ms. Holton were first handed down by a grand jury, the council president at the time, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, set a clear and reasonable standard to ensure the council was not acting under any sort of cloud. She removed Ms. Holton from her chairwomanship but briefly restored her to the post after Judge Dennis M. Sweeny ruled that the bribery evidence was excluded under a longstanding legal principle that a lawmaker's legislative acts can't be used against her. Mr. Rohrbaugh brought new charges on the campaign finance violation, and Ms. Rawlings-Blake stripped her of her post again.
But when Mr. Young became council president last year, he put Ms. Holton back in the post. It was one of several moves that expanded the power of those who had backed him for council president and diminished the influence of those who had not. He said at the time that Ms. Holton was innocent until proven guilty and should be treated as such.
Mr. Young should have stuck with Ms. Rawlings-Blake's policy from the start — in the wake of former Mayor Sheila Dixon's resignation, the city needed as much assurance as possible about the integrity of its government. But at least he's doing the right thing now. He spoke with Ms. Holton personally after her court appearance and announced at last night's council meeting that she would be removed from the taxation and economic development committee entirely. That was the only action he could take that would show real consequences for Ms. Holton's conduct. Any kind of admonishment short of that would have been a slap on the wrist.
That said, the matter isn't completely over. As Mr. Rohrbaugh's office noted yesterday, the campaign finance charge was a sideshow to the question of whether Ms. Holton's actions amounted to accepting a bribe. The fate of that case is now before Maryland's highest court, and it is impossible to know for sure whether it will ever go to trial, though it seems unlikely.
The council need not wait to find out. Mr. Young should refer the matter to the city's ethics board — which has not taken any action in the matter — and should direct the council to initiate its own investigation. The city charter gives the council the power to police its own members — by a three-quarters vote, a council member may be removed from office. Such a step may be an extreme response to the campaign finance violation to which Ms. Holton pleaded no contest, but the question of bribery is more fundamental to citizens' trust in government. The principle of legislative immunity that has so far spared Ms. Holton a bribery trial need not apply to the council's decisions on whether or how to discipline its own members. Mr. Young's step yesterday was a necessary and important one, but it shouldn't be his last.