Ethics code considered for officials

January 08, 1995|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore City officials would be prohibited from hiring their relatives, and City Council members could not contact judges about pending cases under a sweeping proposed code of conduct under consideration.

The proposed code -- the first for city officials -- also would require officials to be familiar with financial disclosure rules, restrict their fund-raising activities and forbid the personal use of city property.

It also states that provisions, including those involving conflicts of interest, apply to unpaid members of city boards.

The proposed code goes beyond the city's ethics law, which governs conflicts of interest, gifts and financial disclosure, said Alan R. Yuspeh, chairman of the city's Board of Ethics. The board developed the proposed code.

"What this is going to accomplish is to put in the hands of every city employee a set of standards," Mr. Yuspeh said.

The board also is planning to look at possible revisions of the ethics law.

The proposed code comes after several ethical issues that have been raised in the past several months about city officials.

They include a meeting last June between the city's top judge and five council members to discuss the criminal corruption case against former City Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean and the failure of Superintendent of Schools Walter G. Amprey to file required annual financial disclosure statements.

Also, federal auditors examining the Housing Authority of Baltimore City found that millions of dollars in no-bid contracts were given to relatives of a board member and an employee and concluded that the authority's conflict of interest regulations were "inadequate."

Pending before the council are three separate pieces of legislation that were introduced last fall to strengthen the city's ethics laws.

Mr. Yuspeh sent a "discussion draft" of the proposed code of conduct to agency heads and top city officials last week. He asked for written reactions by the end of the month and said he expects a public hearing on the proposed code will be held. A final draft should be ready by spring, he said.

"We're not taking a position that something is sacrosanct. We want to get comments," Mr. Yuspeh said.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he had not reviewed the proposed code, but supports the process.

"I just think there's a need periodically to review these ethics issues," Mr. Schmoke said. "Obviously, the situation with Mrs. McLean led to a renewed concern of these issues."

Mrs. McLean received a three-month suspended sentence and five years' probation last month for stealing $25,000 in taxpayer money. She had set up bogus contracts with a fictitious employee and failed to disqualify herself from voting on a proposed city lease of property she owned. The former comptroller, who has repaid the money, also was ordered to perform 750 hours of community service.

City Council President Mary Pat Clarke called the proposed code "a good beginning point." She said she would like to see the code specify penalties for violations.

"We need to tighten up our code of conduct and get it into the law for the benefit of the public as well as for people who work in city government," she said.

Mrs. Clarke, who is challenging Mr. Schmoke's bid for a third term as mayor, is the lead sponsor of a bill to prohibit appointed agency heads and board members from selling tickets to political fund-raisers of candidates for city offices.

The proposed code of conduct does not go that far. It says city employees can't use their positions to obtain political contributions, or to influence the activities of their subordinates.

The rules aren't intended to bar employees from fund-raising activities, according to the draft, but are designed "to ensure that these activities are undertaken only at private initiative and expense and not under any duress."

The proposed code restates the ethics law requirement that employees not participate in decisions involving businesses in which they or their relatives have a financial interest. It broadens the provisions to include "outside interests," noting that "participation in the activities of leadership of a non-profit organization may create a conflict of interest."

In suggesting ethics provisions be extended to board members, the proposed code notes that because most serve on a part-time, volunteer basis "there is an increased potential for conflict of interest."

"For this reason," the code states, "such board members should take special care to inform themselves of and to abide by all provisions of this code."

PROPOSED CODE

Here are highlights of the proposed code of conduct for Baltimore City employees:

* City Council members should not communicate with judges about specific cases.

* Officials should be familiar with and comply with financial disclosure laws.

* Employees can't hire or supervise any relatives.

* Volunteer appointees to city boards are covered by all provisions of the code.

* Employees can't use their positions to get political contributions, or encourage their subordinates to engage in fund raising.

* Employees are forbidden from unauthorized use of city property.

* Membership in a nonprofit organization can create a conflict of interest.

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