Tunnel Vision on Ethics

June 25, 1994

Baltimore's City Hall seems to be afflicted with a serious case of ethical tunnel vision. If what you do isn't against the narrowest interpretation of the ethics code, city officials seem to reason, there's nothing wrong in doing it.

The fact that appearances also count, especially when the code embraces only the most outrageous conflicts of interest, means little. According to Daniel P. Henson III, the city's housing czar, there's nothing wrong in giving no-bid work to an in-law of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke as long as the mayor wasn't bribed. The mayor agrees. That's not even tunnel vision. It's political astigmatism.

Mr. Henson's rush program to make $23 million in repairs to public housing units without putting the contracts out to competitive bidding is already under suspicion. Relatives of a Housing Authority board member also got no-bid contracts. Federal officials are investigating for possible corruption. Strictly speaking, the city's conflict of interest law has not been violated, but it has been dented.

As housing commissioner as well as director of the federally financed Housing Authority, Mr. Henson may have been justified in his crash program to rehabilitate vacant public housing units. Federal rules permit no-bid contracts in emergencies. Whether this was really an emergency, rather than an urgent social need, federal officials must decide. And Mr. Henson justly can take pride in his efforts to use more minority contractors, especially smaller but qualified ones who rarely get a chance at city contracts. He has a reputation for cutting corners in order to get things done in an agency that conspicuously needed strong leadership. But this time Mr. Henson has cut one corner too many.

For one thing, the qualifications of Mayor Schmoke's brother-in-law are not quite clear. He claims to have had a home improvement business for years, but state records show him getting a license only after qualifying for the city program last year. For another, giving a mayoral relative $327,000 in no-bid work shrieks of favoritism. In making the award Mr. Henson has tainted achievements in which he can otherwise take pride.

Coming on the heels of City Council members' interference in a criminal trial, this episode demonstrates the need for a serious overhaul of the city's conflict of interest law. It is not enough to forbid only officials and their immediate families from benefiting from public projects. At least in non-competitive work, the net must be cast wider. Officials who don't see the appearance of wrong-doing in such shenanigans can find their tenure in City Hall prematurely ended.

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