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Editorial Advisory Board: Is there no conflict among honest mayors?

The hits to the City of Baltimore just keep coming.

It was recently reported Mayor Catherine Pugh wants to raise money from private parties for city efforts to help the poor and the needy. Many of these potential donors may do business with the city. The problem is, she wants to be able to solicit these funds without first reporting these transactions to the city Ethics Board so the board approves the transactions in advance and the transactions comply with ethics laws.

What’s that, you say?

The city Ethics Board was created in 1963; the law creating it was amended in 1974 to require financial disclosures, and in 2005 was again amended to require disclosure of persons who do business with the city and who make gifts to the city. The law was written to require certain conditions be met before money can be taken by the city so the money would not be used to influence how business is conducted.

Specifically, unless disclosures are made and a process followed, any public servant (a mayor, for example) is prohibited from soliciting or facilitating the solicitation of a gift from a “controlled donor,” being any person the public servant has reason to believe does business with the city; seeks to do business with the city; is a lobbyist with respect to matters before the city; has a financial interest that might be advanced by the performance of the city’s official duties; or is a person who is an owner or partner of one of the persons just described.

The process for disclosure and approval is clearly written and the disclosure and approval are subject to public access. Pugh, however, has said she wants to be able to make these solicitations, otherwise prohibited without disclosure and prior approval, and be exempt from the requirement she seek approval from the city Ethics Board, whose approval would require determinations, for example, that the solicitation is for the exclusive benefit of a governmental or charitable function or program; that the board has endorsed the program or activity; that the solicitation be directed at a broad range of potential donors and may not target controlled donors (so as not to apply pressure to give to people doing business with the city); and advance approval by the Ethics Board.

The mayor’s office has had a series of really poor judgment calls since December. (We listed many in a recent editorial.) This effort on her behalf  may be of even greater magnitude, and it makes us wonder whether she is getting the best advice possible on a day-to-day basis for a person in her position – someone who is both the figurehead of the city and on the firing line every minute of every day to restore trust in a broken city via transparency and good and fair policies.

We get it: Baltimore needs money for its programs. But allowing the mayor to decide what does and does not constitute violations of the ethics laws without the oversight built into the statute is an extremely poor and ill-advised idea. We call upon the Ethics Board to deny her request.

As an older lawyer once quipped while his tongue was firmly planted in his cheek, “There are no conflicts among honest lawyers.” We think what Pugh desires to do, being left to determine what does and what does not violate the law, is a very, very bad idea and is fraught with conflicts. Clearly, the end cannot justify the means.

EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS

James B. Astrachan, Chair

James K. Archibald

John Bainbridge Jr.

Wesley D. Blakeslee

Martha Ertman

Arthur F. Fergenson

Susan Francis

Marcella A. Holland

David Jaros

Ericka King

Stephen Meehan

C. William Michaels

Angela W. Russell

Debra G. Schubert

H. Mark Stichel

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the Board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the Bench, Bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, majority views and signed rebuttals will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.

Find out more about the members of the Editorial Advisory Board.