All in the family Dr. Schmoke's contract: How do you draw ethics line when mayor's wife seeks city work?

August 20, 1996

An Aug. 20 editorial incorrectly stated that Metropolitan Eye Associates had a contract with the Baltimore City Health Department. In fact, the contract is with Baltimore Medical System, which receives payments for MEA's services from the city Health Department.

The Sun regrets the error.

A PRUDENT MIND can see room for misgiving. So said Sophocles, the ancient Greek dramatist. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke should have misgivings about a city contract that his wife's ophthalmology firm won to provide eye exams, glasses and other services to Medicare patients.

There is no indication that the mayor used his clout to steer the job to Metropolitan Eye Associates, of which Dr. Patricia L. Schmoke is president. The lucrative contract was obtained through competitive bidding. Nonetheless, the arrangement gives the appearance of an ethical lapse by the mayor.


Public officials ought to avoid any suggestion of favoritism, especially when it comes to close relatives. That Mrs. Schmoke's firm was even involved in the bid process may have intimidated others from participating. Still, what Mrs. Schmoke did is not against the law. Those who declined to bid were not coerced. Mrs. Schmoke followed the rules and her company submitted the lowest price.

Five years ago, the Baltimore City Board of Ethics gave its approval to a contract between the city Health Department and Metropolitan Eye Associates. The group again won the bid to provide services to Medicare patients in 1994. It is apparently doing a good job, in theory saving taxpayers money by providing regular eye exams and ophthalmologic services to elderly Medicare patients at neighborhood clinics before they develop complications that might require more expensive medical treatment.

It would have been far better for Mr. Schmoke's image had his wife removed herself from participation in this contract. His ethics would not now be questioned. But would that be fair to Dr. Schmoke, who has a career separate from the mayor's and justifiably wants to be as successful in her job as he has been in his? Would it be fair to taxpayers, who got the least expensive bid for this service?

There are no cut and dried answers. It would help if ethics rules more clearly define when the relatives of public officials can be hired and what public officials should do to guard against conflicts of interest.

Until that happens, situations similar to Mrs. Schmoke's contract will continue to arise, and prudent minds will continue to have room for misgivings.

Pub Date: 8/20/96

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