Needed: A Real Ethics Code

November 18, 1994

Baltimore City officials finally seem to be getting serious about tightening their limp code of ethics. It's about time. Whenever some clearly unacceptable behavior comes to light, a cry arises in City Hall to bolster the code of acceptable behavior with another toothpick. Nothing less than a wholesale overhaul of the code is needed. The city's Board of Ethics has started work on a new Code of Conduct and plans to revise the toothless ethics law. City officials are at least paying lip service to the need for change. We'll see.

In the last four months there have been several examples of the ethics code's weakness. Several city employees convicted of taking bribes -- $100,000 worth in one case -- are collecting their pensions, which are partly financed by the city taxpayers they bilked. What they did wasn't a crime under city law. Allan L. Reynolds, the city auditor, thinks that is outrageous, and so do we. For at least two years he has been urging real penalties for taking or giving bribes. The public is left to wonder why it has taken so long.

The financial disclosure statements that 800 city officials must file don't amount to much. Officials don't have to swear the reports are accurate. Lying is punished with a wrist slap, a fine of up to $1,000. Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge has introduced legislation that would make a false statement on a disclosure report constitute perjury, which carries a jail term. Another Band-Aid.

Then there was the incident in which Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's brother-in-law was given a $327,000 no-bid contract by the Housing Authority. Its director, Daniel P. Henson III, saw nothing wrong in that. After all, the mayor didn't directly benefit, Mr. Henson pointed out. The city's ethics code is so narrowly drawn that Mr. Henson may be technically correct, though morally obtuse.

Even the spectacle of five members of the City Council conferring privately with two senior judges about the corruption case against Jacqueline McLean, who was then comptroller, didn't stir more than a transitory flurry of criticism. After all, there is no written prohibition against council members meddling in a criminal trial.

The city's Board of Ethics is drafting some conduct guidelines. That's fine, as far as it goes. But the board, which has two administration representatives but is dominated by non-official members, needs also to draw up an ethics code which clearly outlaws some of the disgraceful behavior displayed in city government recently and provides severe penalties -- including jail time -- for violations.

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