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Baltimore solicitor finds rules unclear on elected official travel, places no fault on State’s Attorney Mosby for trips

After a week of legal research, Baltimore’s solicitor concluded that rules for travel by elected officials are ambiguous and inconsistently applied, a determination that places no fault on State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby for her many trips to conferences around the world.

City leaders released the five-page opinion Thursday from City Solicitor Jim Shea. He found “no clear answer” to the question they presented him last week. Does an elected official need approval to accept plane tickets and hotel rooms from a private organization?

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Shea cited instances of elected officials seeking approval for past trips, but he concluded Baltimore’s administrative manual does not expressly require such permission. He recommended the city begin work to clarify the rules.

“Disclosure of and transparency about the activities of elected officials are important goals,” he wrote.

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Mayor Brandon Scott asked the solicitor and city administrators to come up with fixes. They are to present their recommendations in 90 days.

“Our administrative manual is not regularly updated and could benefit from a comprehensive assessment,” the mayor said. “I have asked this group to convene and present recommendations that remove any ambiguity in these processes for greater transparency and accountability moving forward.”

Mosby’s attorneys defended her travel with a sharply worded letter, arguing public officials don’t need to ask for permission when private groups and not taxpayers cover their travel expenses. Comptroller Bill Henry asked the solicitor, the city’s lawyer, to research the matter and settle the dispute.

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Mosby issued a statement Thursday, saying she was pleased by the solicitor’s findings.

“The misrepresentation of the rules was the central theme of the Inspector General’s report and subsequent misleading headlines and media coverage,” Mosby said in a statement.

She said the inspector general “applied an ambiguous administrative rule related to travel reimbursement that current members of the Board of Estimates admittedly didn’t follow.”

Shea found the city’s travel rules do not expressly apply to elected officials. An elected official, for example, doesn’t work on a 9-to-5 clock. He also disagreed with arguments that the rules should be applied to elected officials for transparency.

“If the point of requiring [Board of Estimates] approval for travel not funded by the City is disclosure and transparency, those goals could be satisfied by the ethics rules that require disclosure of gifts, including funding of travel and lodging paid for by others,” he noted.

In her own statement, Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming said she acknowledged his findings.

“The Office of the Inspector General utilized the plain language found in the Administrative Manual, precedent set by other Elected Officials, and the interpretation of prior administrators to reach the conclusion in the report,” she said.

Last week, Cumming issued the findings from her seven-month investigation into Mosby’s travels, gifts and private businesses. Cumming found Mosby reported taking 24 trips in 2018 and 2019, traveling as a conference guest and speaker to Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Houston, Texas; Atlanta, Georgia, and elsewhere.

Mosby reported these trips in her state ethics disclosures. Criminal justice nonprofits such as Fair and Just Prosecution and the Vera Institute of Justice often paid for her flights and hotel rooms. As the city’s top prosecutor, Mosby earns nearly $240,000 a year.

Meanwhile, she registered her own companies in 2019 to offer travel and consulting services, though she’s said these companies exist in name only without clients or revenues. The inspector general found Mosby sought to deduct $5,000 in losses by her companies in her federal tax returns. The inspector general found these losses stemmed in part from tickets purchased for Mosby and her husband, City Council President Nick Mosby, to fly to Tampa, Florida.

Mosby’s lawyers wrote that these losses were “in connection with establishing the companies and with other activities before they could become operational.”

The lawyers took issue with Cumming’s depiction of the travels.

“Your Report makes it appear as though Mrs. Mosby was gallivanting around as a tourist. Her trips were work. The travel was exhausting and took her away from her family. Many of the trips occurred over weekends,” attorneys David Shuster and Andrew Graham wrote.

Mosby herself requested the investigation last summer amid questions about her travels and private business dealings. She said at the time that she believed the inspector general’s findings would put the questions to rest.

On Thursday, Mosby echoed calls by her lawyer’s for Cumming to amend her report.

“It is simply not ethical to accuse someone of breaking a rule that was never clear,” Mosby said.

She’s come under intense scrutiny since the inspector general report was released last week. On Wednesday, her campaign addressed questions about its finance report filed last month.

The finance report lists 11 donors from a single home in the 2100 block of Druid Hill Avenue and two donors — Valda Ricks, deputy state’s attorney for operations; and P&J Contracting Company — from an address in the 700 block of St. Paul Street.

“The minor discrepancies in the Friends of Marilyn Mosby campaign finance report were due to an ‘auto populated NGP software error’ that was overlooked and it was corrected,” the Friends of Marilyn Mosby explained in an email.

Four months ago, City Council President Nick Mosby attributed discrepancies in his campaign finance reports to an automatic function that populates expenses. He was hit with more than $500 in reporting penalties during his bid to become City Council president.

The campaign finance report for Marilyn Mosby also revealed a $3,250 payment to the private attorneys representing her during the inspector general’s investigation. That item prompted James Cabezas, the former political corruption investigator for Maryland, to ask the state prosecutor to review the payment.

State election laws prohibit candidates from using their campaign money for legal expenses that have nothing to do with the campaign.

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Mosby’s campaign defended the payment, saying the investigation initially affected her “electoral viability.” But as the investigation widened, Mosby stopped paying with her campaign money to establish a legal defense fund to pay the lawyers, the campaign said. The fund has not yet been set up.

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The lawyers said they repaid the money to the Friends of Marilyn Mosby.

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