Baltimore’s Board of Ethics has been entrusted with the important mission of guarding “against improper influence or even the appearance of improper influence, and to ensure public trust” in city government. It’s not complicated. They are the watchdogs. They are the folks who, to use a common expression in our line of work, “follow the money” to make sure Elected Official A isn’t taking envelopes stuffed with cash from Contractor B — or any of the multitude of other potential forms of public corruption. It’s not always fun. They probably won’t find themselves invited to all the best City Hall parties. But they are expected to be advocating for transparency and the public disclosure of potentially compromising financial information that may point toward corruption. Disclose, disclose, disclose. If they aren’t pushing for that, why do they even exist?
This is precisely the question raised by the board’s indefensible decision to release the list of donations to the legal defense fund established to assist Nick and Marilyn Mosby — with the names and street addresses of all 130 donors blacked out. All that is left visible is the dollar amount, how it was paid (usually by credit or debit card) and the donor’s ZIP code. That’s useful if the reader’s goal is to figure out which ZIP code is most politically aligned with the former city state’s attorney (Marilyn Mosby) or the current Baltimore City Council president (Nick Mosby) or judge the popularity of the Venmo digital wallet app perhaps but not much else. As a tool to ferret out potential corruption, it is worse than useless. It is a nondisclosure disclosure. Is this really what was at stake last month when the ethics board convinced a Circuit Court judge to order Council President Mosby to hand over the list?
Here’s where it gets really embarrassing. The only explanation to date is that the board felt constrained by state law, presumably the Public Information Act that speaks to the right of individuals to keep their finances in confidence. It’s why, for example, a reporter can’t just look up any person’s tax returns. But it’s not clear that it’s at all applicable. After all, campaign finance reports routinely give full names and addresses for even modest donations. And one can argue that a legal-defense fund donation is a far more powerful tool to curry favor from a public official. It’s one thing to collect enough outside money to afford a billboard or direct mail campaign, it’s quite another to underwrite a legal defense that keeps a spouse out of a federal correctional facility, which is hardly beyond the realm of possibilities for Mrs. Mosby whose federal perjury and mortgage fraud trial is now slated for November.
What if the hidden donors are just average folks with no ties to city government who perhaps felt obliged to donate at the behest of a friend or perhaps pastor of civic group? Providing those names allows everyone, especially Mr. Mosby’s constituents, to have faith in the system. When everything is out in the open, trust is easier to grant. Did this even occur to members of this ethics board? To their staff? To any lawyers who might have advised them? We don’t know. But we would note that we don’t hear anyone connected with the ethics board screaming from the rooftops. Surely, the redaction should have at least justified a formal opinion from the city law office — along with a full disclosure of that opinion.
No doubt it’s unhelpful that two of the five seats on the ethics board have been unfilled for months, and we would urge Mayor Brandon Scott to fill those positions as soon as possible. But we would respectfully request that the current three members rethink this decision and move toward full disclosure as soon as possible. Mr. Mosby ought to seek that as well. It is, after all, the absence of full disclosure that continues to hurt the council president’s standing in the court of public opinion. This is a city that has seen enough money passing into the hands of elected officials, including by way of children’s books and gift cards, to be suspicious when public records are withheld and money can’t be followed.
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