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Closing Baltimore's ethics loopholes

Disclosure of possible conflicts of interest is crucial to maintaining public trust in government and in ensuring that elected officials maintain the highest standards of conduct. But Baltimore has managed to render something so important a near total waste of time.

Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Julie Scharper found plenty of questionable actions by elected officials when they investigated how often Baltimore politicians avail themselves of free tickets to cultural and sporting events. But the most disturbing finding is this: Baltimore's system for reporting on such matters is the ethics equivalent of a tree falling in the forest. City officials file annual disclosure forms, but neither the city ethics board nor its staff reviews them. The public could, theoretically, step in to fill the gap, but given that the forms are haphazardly dumped into file cabinets in a city office building, that's far from likely.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has made public ethics a top priority of her administration, and indeed, she appears to take the reporting requirements under city law more seriously than anyone. The reports she files are voluminous and meticulous. She should lead the charge to make sure such diligence is not merely a matter of personal virtue but a universal standard. Here are three problems with the system that could be fixed through legislation:

•Online access to financial disclosure statements. Baltimore County recently voted to make its officials' ethics statements available online, starting with the forms due on May 1. There is reason to hope that the General Assembly (embarrassed, perhaps, over state Sen. Ulysses Currie's failures in disclosing his conflicts of interest) will follow suit. City Councilman Carl Stokes has proposed an ordinance that would require Baltimore elected officials to do the same thing, and, according to their spokesmen, both Mayor Rawlings-Blake and City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young support the effort. The bill has been referred to a committee but has not yet been acted on. It should be enacted, but it can be improved in two respects.

First, under current law, the city ethics board is required to keep records of the name, address, telephone number and organization represented by anyone seeking to inspect a disclosure form. Mr. Stokes' bill eliminates that requirement for forms viewed online but not for those inspected in person. The requirement has a chilling effect on any effort by the public to inspect the records and should be eliminated in all circumstances.

Second, the legislation deals only with elected officials and not the hundreds of others who are required to submit ethics forms. The ethics board's staff, in reviewing the proposed ordinance, noted that it could not support the legislation if it required all forms to be posted online because it lacked the manpower to handle such a task. There is a solution that would make the endeavor easier for elected officials, less time-consuming for the ethics staff and more valuable to the public. Rather than scanning in paper forms, the state has an online filing system. That eliminates most of the clerical work involved and has another benefit: The forms could be made searchable.

•No more cash reimbursements. Mr. Broadwater and Ms. Scharper reported that in some instances, Mr. Young accepted tickets to sporting and cultural events from companies or individuals who do business with the city — ordinarily a violation of the ethics law. In some of those cases, a spokesman said, the council president paid for the tickets in cash, meaning they were not really gifts. But Mr. Young has provided no documentation to prove it. In those circumstances, city officials should be required to obtain verifiable records of repayment and to make them publicly available.

•No more oral opinions. Mr. Young's spokesman said that in other cases, he accepted tickets from companies that do business with the city but that he got clearance from the city's ethics adviser before doing so. But the adviser and the members of the ethics board are prohibited by law from disclosing whether any individual has asked them for advice. That means we have no way of knowing whether Mr. Young is telling the truth — or what the reason might be for any exception he claims to the ethics laws. The law requires the board to provide written advice about an individual's case upon request (and those reports are required to be made public, but with the name of the requester redacted). The law further states that an individual may rely on the written opinion of the ethics board, but it does not address the issue of an oral opinion.

That system fails to provide meaningful assurance that officials are acting within the scope of the law. If an individual is given dispensation to act outside of the normal confines of the ethics laws, that fact and the board's reasoning need to be publicly documented.

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