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Ethics rules might chill ice bucket challenge

Bryan P. Sears//Daily Record Business Writer//August 22, 2014

Ethics rules might chill ice bucket challenge

By Bryan P. Sears

//Daily Record Business Writer

//August 22, 2014

The act of dumping a bucket of ice water over one’s head for charity could pose ethical questions for public officials in Maryland.

The growing popularity of the ice bucket challenge, which raises money and awareness for ALS research, has given rise to new questions about how public officials participate and whether it runs afoul of rules prohibiting the use of “prestige of office” to benefit others.

Largely driven by social media, the challenge involves getting doused with ice water and challenging three other people to do the same or donate money for research into the degenerative muscular disorder.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake got the challenge earlier this month. A spokeswoman for the mayor said the city’s ethics attorney was consulted when the challenges started; however, she did not elaborate on what advice was given.

As of Friday, the mayor had not participated in the challenge.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said public officials who do participate in charitable activities sometimes walk a difficult line, especially when they challenge people they know through their official duties.

“When you call out people you have a relationship with because you’re an elected official, that’s where you see questions of the use of prestige of office,” Bevan-Dangel said. “It’s a very fuzzy line.”

She acknowledged that the nature of the activity can make it all the more difficult because few would want to say no to charitable causes.

In Maryland, state ethics law cautions public officials and employees against using the prestige of their office for their own private benefit or the benefit of others. Members of the General Assembly, however, are governed by a separate portion of the law that allows them to participate in charity-related events and fundraising as long as they avoid involvement with lobbyists.

And while money for research to cure a devastating disease isn’t likely to raise eyebrows, it could set a precedent that allows public officials to raise money for more controversial causes.

“There are just as many worthy nonprofits out there whose work can be seen as political or controversial,” Bevan-Dangel said.

The lack of distinction between types of charities was underscored by Michael W. Lord, executive director of the Maryland State Ethics Commission.

“No specific guidance has been provided with respect to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, because it’s no different than any other charitable giving situation that comes up from time to time,” Lord said in an email.

In general, Lord said, “State employees and officials should not solicit gifts, which would include charitable donations, in their official capacities. If they wish to make or solicit donations as private citizens, divorced from their State positions, and not using State resources, of course they’re free to do so.”

Nor should state employees or officials “use the prestige of their office or public position for their private gain or that of another, which would include obtaining contributions for a charity,” Lord wrote. “So again, State employees and officials should not be using their positions to benefit a particular charitable cause, however worthy.”

Campaigns OK

Several federal agencies have recently issued warnings to employees and other public officials advising, them against participating in the ice bucket challenge or similar events.

The U.S. State Department issued a directive barring diplomats and other foreign service officers from participating, citing “firmly established rules preventing the use of public office… for private gain, no matter how worthy a cause,” according to the Associated Press.

The Military Times reported that the Pentagon issued directives to members of the armed forces, while Politico said that federal lawmakers received a similar warning against using public resources to promote the charity and and to post videos only on personal or campaign social media accounts, according to the Politico website.

U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen, D-Md., posted one such video to his campaign account on Thursday.

Lord, of the state ethics commission, also noted that the Maryland Ethics Law “does not prohibit charitable activities/solicitations by candidates, including incumbent office holders, undertaken within the context of their campaigns.”

Nina Smith, a spokeswoman for Gov. Martin J. O’Malley, said they have received advice that would allow them to participate in the challenge as long as no public resources are used.

“He will likely participate at some point and when he does he’ll post the video to his Facebook page which is a campaign account,” Smith said. “We believe public officials are allowed to be involved in charitable activities.”

However, a number of other elected officials expressed surprise when asked about the issue, and questioned how a charity might run afoul of public ethics laws.

“This is the first I am hearing of any such ethics issues regarding the bucket challenges for ALS research,” said Don Mohler, a spokesman for Baltimore County Executive Kevin B. Kamenetz.

“As far as I know, the county executive has not been challenged, but he will certainly be supporting ALS and Muscular Dystrophy research when he joins the fire fighters next week at the Fullerton Fire Station for their annual ‘Fill the Boot’ campaign,” Mohler wrote.

Firefighters in Baltimore County have worked on behalf of MDA for more than 30 years “and have raised over $1 million during that time for this worthwhile cause,” Mohler wrote. “And that is a very good thing.”

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown earlier this month accepted the challenge by Republican gubernatorial rival Larry Hogan and his running mate, Boyd Rutherford. Ulman and Brown posted the video on Facebook and YouTube accounts run by the Brown campaign.

David Nitkin, a spokesman for the county executive, said the ethics question was worthy of discussion.

“This is the first we’re hearing of it and it’s something we should have the county solicitor look into,” Nitkin said.

However, he pointed out that Ulman has been involved in a number of charitable events and that the potential of an ethical quandary had never come up.

“The county executive has realized that social media is an important and beneficial tool in supporting all kinds of causes from economic development in downtown Ellicott City to Zaching,” Nitkin said, referring to the biceps-flexing pose named for Zach Lederer, which became a symbol of his positive attitude during the end stages of his fight against cancer.

Mohler, too, invoked a popular anti-cancer campaign — and urged a less legalistic approach.

“Regarding the bucket challenges, I would encourage folks to keep their sense of humor,” he said. “What’s next? Is everyone going to have to throw away their Livestrong bracelets? This is the kind of thing that drives ordinary people nuts.”

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