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‘Inappropriate’ or not, Mosbys’ legal defense fund must be transparent | COMMENTARY

September 27, 2019 -- Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby and Delegate Nick Mosby listen to Rev. Jesse Jackson at the 28th annual Civil Rights Breakfast at the War Memorial Building.
September 27, 2019 -- Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby and Delegate Nick Mosby listen to Rev. Jesse Jackson at the 28th annual Civil Rights Breakfast at the War Memorial Building. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Gov. Larry Hogan is probably not the only person in Maryland at least slightly discomfited by the legal defense fund created on behalf of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and her husband, City Council President Nick Mosby. “It seems a little inappropriate,” the governor told Baltimore’s WBFF TV station.

Set aside the question of whether the Mosbys, who have a combined taxpayer-funded income of more than $366,000, should be footing their own legal bills and the questionable optics of asking the public for charity funds to mount a defense for two public officials who are the subject of a criminal tax investigation, and it’s still problematic.

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Under a best-case scenario, donors would be average folks who believe the federal government’s inquiry into Baltimore’s Democratic power couple deserves a robust defense. After all, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has an army of investigators and attorneys, and skilled criminal defense lawyers are not inexpensive, even for a well-to-do family.

But it is not unreasonable to assume that the individuals most motivated to donate money to the Mosbys’ defense might be those with a personal stake in their careers. That could include, for example, people who might one day do business with the city and lawyers who might find themselves negotiating plea agreements with the prosecutor’s office. Might a donation today help get them access to one or the other Mosby tomorrow? Even if the Mosbys don’t give favor to donors, the look isn’t good.

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Fortunately, there are provisions in state law that are meant to address such ethical dilemmas. They limit donations to legal defense funds of elected officials from individuals who have “private interests that can be impacted by an official’s performance of his duties.” In the case of Mr. Mosby, that would seem to cross off a number of people, including current contractors. But in the case of Ms. Mosby, the outlook is less clear. Can high-profile city defense lawyers pour money into the fund? Ms. Mosby is covered by state ethics requirements, Mr. Mosby by city. The standards vary. Potential exceptions to the rules vary. This is clearly not a circumstance that was anticipated by those who created the parameters.

So here is what the residents of Baltimore have a right to expect: Full disclosure at every opportunity. We would urge the Mosbys to not only keep the defense fund at arm’s length (as their attorney has indicated they intend to do) but also to disclose, disclose, disclose the names of all donors, along with the amounts given, above and beyond any minimum legal standards. And they should recognize this not as a burden, but as a way to reassure the residents of this city that they are not taking advantage of their positions to enrich themselves. People should know if certain individuals are attempting to buy their way into the good graces of either or both of these elected officials.

Public corruption is not exactly unknown in this city, where the 50th mayor is about halfway through the 3-year federal prison sentence she received early last year on fraud, tax and conspiracy charges related to her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s books. The Mosbys have not been charged with any crime, but given that a dispute over their tax records has prompted not simply a civil audit of their returns but a grand jury investigation, there is reason for concern. Subpoenas covering the couple’s past charitable donations, a $45,000 federal tax lien — these are not common circumstances for most Americans. The more people are told, the sooner they are told the better.

The Mosbys have attacked the investigation as overly broad and politically and racially motivated. And if overly aggressive federal prosecutors have treated them unfairly, that ultimately deserves scrutiny and should carry consequences. It’s also entirely possible that, as a legal strategy, it is unwise for them to disclose too much about their affairs before the investigation is complete. But the legal defense fund isn’t about that, and there is no reason why donors and amounts should not be disclosed fully and immediately. That’s not too much to ask.

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Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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