Ambridge aims to strengthen disclosure statements

October 18, 1994|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

A Baltimore City councilman wants to strengthen the city's financial disclosure statements to provide criminal penalties for officials who lie or deliberately omit items -- a first step in reviewing city ethics law.

Prompted partly by reports of conflicts of interest in the awarding of Housing Authority contracts, 2nd District Democrat

Anthony J. Ambridge introduced a bill last night that would require officials to swear that information on their disclosure statements is true. Currently, officials merely attest that they believe the information is correct, with the penalty for making false statements a fine of up to $1,000.

Mr. Ambridge said -- and Maryland's state prosecutor agreed -- that the change in wording would allow violators to be prosecuted for perjury. Perjury, a criminal offense, carries a penalty of up to 10 years in jail.

"My intention is to make people accountable. The current language is very weak," Mr. Ambridge said.

The forms ask officials to list any source of outside employment, property ownership, interest in companies that do business with the city and other financial details.

About 800 city officials are required to file the disclosure statements, according to Bernard F. "Buzz" Murphy, director of the city's Department of Legislative Reference, which oversees the filings. They include all elected officials and department heads, building and health inspectors, and employees involved in purchasing goods and services.

Mr. Ambridge said he hoped his bill would be a springboard for a complete review of Baltimore's ethics laws, which were drafted in the early 1980s. "This may open up a Pandora's box," he said.

Alan R. Yuspeh, chairman of the city's five-member Board of Ethics, said his panel would make a formal comment on the bill later. But he, too, said a review of city ethics laws may be overdue -- including whether the annual forms call for enough information.

A recent federal audit criticized the city's Housing Authority because no-bid contracts were awarded to relatives of an agency board member and of an agency employee.

Also, earlier this month, The Sun reported that Baltimore school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey had failed to file the required disclosure forms during his three-year tenure. He said he would complete one by the Nov. 1 deadline; he had not done so by yesterday, officials said.

Under current law, elected officials who file false statements can be prosecuted for misconduct in office, said Maryland State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli. But the chances of doing so are "very remote" and there is a two-year time limit on initiating action, he said.

There is no statute of limitations on perjury, he said.

But perjury convictions can be difficult to get because prosecutors "have to show it's a willful act," he added.

Mr. Murphy said most omissions or incorrect statements on disclosure forms have been the result of carelessness and ignorance. Officials usually correct the statements quickly when problems are brought to their attention, he said.

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