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Politics

Baltimore Council members call on President Mosby to comply with ethics order regarding legal defense fund

Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby should comply with an ethics board order to return money collected by a legal defense fund established to benefit him and his wife, cease fundraising activities to the fund and produce a list of donors, a group of City Council members said in a letter sent to Mosby Saturday.

The letter, signed by six of the city’s 15 council members — Kristerfer Burnett, Zeke Cohen, Ryan Dorsey, Phylicia Porter, Odette Ramos and James Torrence — echoes the demands of an order issued Thursday by the Baltimore Board of Ethics following a more than eight-month investigation into the legal defense fund.

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The ethics board ruled Mosby violated city ethics law by indirectly accepting money from “controlled donors” to the fund, which was established to benefit him and his wife, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. The council president also violated the ethics code by indirectly soliciting donations to the fund, ethics board members said.

“We write to express to you our dismay at the ethics board’s findings in their investigation of the Mosby Trust, of which you are a beneficiary, and your financial disclosure,” states the City Council members’ letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Baltimore Sun. “We commend the board’s thorough report and diligent explanation of the law, facts and precedent, making unmistakably clear the violations of the city’s ethics laws.”

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The ethics board issued a 17-page ruling Thursday detailing two donations — one of $5,000 and another of $100 — to the fund from city contractors they consider controlled donors. As council president, Mosby oversees not just the legislative branch of government, but also the Board of Estimates, Baltimore’s spending board.

According to the ethics board, controlled donors to the council president include anyone who seeks to do business with City Council, the council president’s office, the Board of Estimates or any city governmental or quasi-governmental entity with which the council president is affiliated. Also included are subcontractors doing business with or seeking to do business with the above groups, and those who engage in activities regulated or controlled by those groups.

Mosby denied violating the city’s ethics code.

“I am completely perplexed by the board’s findings,” he wrote Thursday. “The board is fully aware that I have never asked, requested, or solicited any person to donate to the ‘legal defense fund.’”

The ethics board gave Mosby 30 days to tell authorities controlling the legal defense fund to stop all fundraising on his behalf, return all donations to controlled donors and provide a list to the board of all donors to the fund. Within 30 days, Mosby must certify to the board in writing “under penalties of perjury” that he has taken all ordered steps and will not accept further payments from the fund.

“The ethics board’s administrative order provides a clear and straightforward path for you to correct your multiple ethics violations,” council’s letter states. “For the sake of the trust and morale of both the public and the City Council, we ask that you immediately and fully comply with the order.”

The letter stops short of suggesting any kind of action the group may seek against the council president if he does not comply with their wishes. The signers represent some of the most liberal members of the entirely Democratic board.

Baltimore’s Board of Ethics must notify the mayor and City Council “for appropriate action” if it finds any elected official has violated the ethics code. Both received notice on Thursday.

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If Mosby does not comply with the order, the Board of Ethics has the option to petition in Circuit Court on behalf of the mayor and City Council to compel him to comply, according to the city’s ethics ordinance. A fine can also be imposed of up to $1,000 for each violation. Each day on which a violation occurs is considered a separate offense under the ordinance.

City Council has the right to call for investigative hearings. Past city councils have had a standing legislative investigations committee, but no such committee is currently in place. As council president, Mosby controls the establishment of committees, the appointment of members to serve on them and the assignment of various bills and resolutions to committees.

Baltimore’s charter also gives council the power to remove a council president, but the threshold is high. A vote of three-fourths of the members of the board [12 votes] can remove the president for “incompetency, misconduct in office, willful neglect of duty, or felony or misdemeanor in office, on charges preferred by the Mayor, by the City Council’s Committee on Legislative Investigations, a verified petition signed by at least 20% of the qualified voters in Baltimore City, or by the Inspector General, after notice of those charges and an opportunity to be heard by the City Council are given to the president.”

The signers of the letter circulated an email to their fellow Council members Friday urging them to sign. The two-paragraph letter requests a “minimally appropriate action” of the council president, they said.

“The circumstances and consequences to public trust and morale require that we not be silent,” they wrote.

Little is known about the donors to the legal defense fund, which began accepting contributions in mid-2021. Such funds exist outside state election law and are instead governed by ethics ordinances and rules on gifts to public officials.

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According to the city Board of Ethics, the Mosby legal defense fund received $14,352 in donations as of March 15 from 135 individual donors. The largest individual donation was a $5,000 contribution from the “resident agent” for a contractor that is a city-certified minority- or woman-owned business. The business was a subcontractor on a deal considered by the city’s spending board in 2020 and is considered a controlled donor by the ethics board.

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Prominent supporters and community leaders have encouraged contributions, posting on Facebook and appearing at news conferences, but neither Nick nor Marilyn Mosby has reported contributions to the fund on their most recent ethics disclosure statements, due after the creation of the fund.

The prominent political pair have been the target of a federal investigation into their finances that resulted in January with Marilyn Mosby being indicted on two counts of perjury and two counts of making false statements on loan applications to buy two properties in Florida: an eight-bedroom house near Disney World and a condo on the state’s Gulf Coast.

Federal prosecutors say Marilyn Mosby perjured herself by falsely claiming financial hardship because of the coronavirus to make early, penalty-free withdrawals from her city retirement savings under the federal CARES Act. They also accused her of failing to disclose a federal tax lien on a mortgage application for one property and claiming the house near Orlando as a second home to secure lower interest rates when she already had lined up a company to operate it as a rental.

Marilyn Mosby has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go to trial this fall.

Nick Mosby said Thursday he “proactively disclaimed” any interest in the legal defense fund and never received any money from it.

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As state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby is governed by the state’s ethics ordinance, which is similar to the city’s. Asked if the Maryland State Ethics Commission is investigating any similar complaints against the state’s attorney or if it had produced any findings, Executive Director Jennifer Allgair said the commission does not comment on or confirm any request for advice, complaint or investigation.

Baltimore Sun reporter Lee O. Sanderlin contributed to this article.


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