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Ethics panel finds Baltimore Del. McCray breached legislature's conduct standards

Ethics panel finds Baltimore Del. McCray breached legislature's conduct standards
Baltimore Del. Cory McCray. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

The General Assembly’s ethics committee has determined that a Baltimore delegate "breached the standards of conduct expected of a member" of the legislature last year in an angry outburst at an advocate for a nonprofit group.

The Joint Commission on Legislative Ethics found unanimously that it lacked the legal authority to recommend that Del. Cory McCray face punishment by the House of Delegates. But the panel decided the misconduct by the first-term Democrat was serious enough to refer the matter to House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

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The ethics committee’s decision, which came in April but was not publicized, followed a complaint by Nicole Hanson, executive director of Out for Justice, an advocacy group for ex-offenders.

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Hanson said McCray lost his temper and threw a chair against a wall during an argument with her in the House office building March 28. She said she felt physically threatened.

Hanson said she decided to file a complaint with the ethics committee a week after the incident, after McCray rejected overtures seeking an apology. Her account was corroborated by another advocate, Caryn York of the Job Opportunities Task Force.

Nicole Hanson, 34, executive director of Out for Justice, a nonprofit group that advocates for reform of policies that adversely affect ex-offenders, filed a complaint saying Baltimore Del. Cory McRay physically threatened her in his office last March.
Nicole Hanson, 34, executive director of Out for Justice, a nonprofit group that advocates for reform of policies that adversely affect ex-offenders, filed a complaint saying Baltimore Del. Cory McRay physically threatened her in his office last March. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

The ethics committee said it conducted a “thorough review” of Hanson’s complaint that McCray’s behavior was “outside the accepted bounds of civility and decorum for members of the House of Delegates.”

Among those who acknowledged talking with ethics investigators were York, McCray and Del. Antonio Hayes, a Baltimore Democrat who shares an office with McCray and who, according to Hanson, tried to act as a peacemaker.

In the complaint Hanson filed last April, she said she had known McCray for three years and had a “productive working relationship” with him. She said she is a constituent of McCray’s and had worked on his election campaign in 2014. Hanson, who is not a registered lobbyist, said McCray had permitted her to use his office suite to work on her laptop when she was in Annapolis as a community advocate.

Hanson said that on the day of the outburst, she, McCray, York and Hayes were having a spirited discussion of the causes of poverty — a concern in McCray’s 45th District in East Baltimore. Hanson characterized the discussion as “passionate” but not heated until McCray lost his composure, began using obscenities, picked up a chair and threw it against a wall.

“The incident was extremely upsetting to me,” Hanson said.

McCray told The Sun he remembers the incident differently. For instance, he denies throwing a chair.

“In no way did I feel as though I intimidated anyone in a physical way,” McCray said. But he acknowledged that his language and volume were unacceptable.

“I know I was wrong,’ he said. “It was an extreme learning experience.”

McCray said he has not had similar confrontations during his political career.

The delegate acknowledged he did not apologize until he ran into Hanson at a community event several weeks later — after the complaint had been filed. He said he thought that resolved the issue, but Hanson said she found his apology unconvincing.

McCray, 35, was elected to the House in 2014, bringing to politics an impressive back story of rising from being a juvenile offender to getting an electricians union apprenticeship that turned his life around. Last year, he announced he would challenge veteran Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden in the June 26 Democratic primary.

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Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat and fellow member of the 2014 class, expressed surprise that McCray was the subject of a complaint.

“I’ve never seen Cory even raise his voice,” she said. “I’ve never seen him behave inappropriately in any manner.”

Busch cannot reprimand, censure or expel, but he can counsel a delegate.

McCray said he had a talk with the speaker after the committee’s referral.

“I beat myself up pretty badly about it,” McCray said.

Busch spokesman Alexandra Hughes confirmed that the speaker met with McCray last spring.

“While I cannot comment specifically on the substance of their conversation, Speaker Busch counseled Delegate McCray about appropriate conduct for a legislator, parameters for interactions with lobbyists and advocates, and established an ongoing schedule of check-ins with the Speaker’s Office,” Hughes said. “Delegate McCray indicated to the speaker that he had apologized to Ms. Hanson and understood that his behavior was not in any way appropriate.”

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