Conflicts of interest abound

June 18, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

EVERY few years, another politician trips over -- or obliterates -- the ethical line between doing what's right as opposed to looking out for No. 1.

When this happens, the offending pols then try to justify their improper actions.

They'd be better off admitting their shenanigans, as the late state Sen. Joseph J. Staszak once did.

Reporters confronted him on a bill he sponsored, lobbied for and voted for that would benefit his East Baltimore tavern. They asked Staszak whether this constituted a conflict of interest.

"Conflict of interest? How does this conflict with my interest?"

It was a refreshing moment of political honesty.

We could use that directness today from pols like Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon and city Sheriff John W. Anderson.

Ethics codes apparently don't apply to them.

Ms. Dixon is a double-dipper. She holds down two government jobs -- and maintains she has no trouble handling both positions.

That may defy the laws of physics and the notion of a 24-hour day, but not to her.

"I work a lot of hours," she said.

Indeed she must, both as City Council president and as a senior trade representative for the state. Her combined income: $109,000.

She tried to deflect criticism by requesting a state ethics commission ruling.

But instead of giving her the green light to hold down two jobs at taxpayers' expense, the commission found this "dual employment would be inconsistent with ... the public ethics law."

Ms. Dixon isn't one to take no for an answer, not when it conflicts with her interests. She got her state job redefined so as to eliminate perceived problems of a city elected official working for a state economic-development agency.

That still doesn't change things, though. It just papers over the ethics violations with a thin veneer of hogwash.

She continues to get paid for two government jobs, one of which is full-time. State taxpayers deserve better.

Her boss in state government now has laid down so many restrictions on Ms. Dixon's activities -- to shield her from conflicts -- that she might as well not show up for work.

But then, it's virtually impossible for her to put in much time at that job anyway, given the demands of running the Baltimore City Council, presiding over the city's Board of Estimates and politicking day and night.

It's all a sham.

This odoriferous situation is nothing, though, compared to Sheriff Anderson's.

Here's a guy, elected by voters three times, who hires his soon-to-be wife as a secretary, then lets her take five months sick leave -- sick time that he had "donated" to her by other office workers.

What a novel concept.

But there's more. He gave his own sick leave to a deputy sheriff who had raised $3,000 for his campaigns -- even though Sheriff Anderson, as an elected official, doesn't get paid sick leave.

Besides, you can't trade sick-leave days like baseball cards -- unless you're the sheriff who hires everyone in his office.

There's even more. The sheriff has a habit of putting members of his family, his friends and children of his friends on his payroll. Nepotism lives!

Want more? His wife-secretary worked part time for a month -- yet was paid her full-time salary.

What a sweet deal. The sheriff in this town makes his own rules to suit his own purposes.

How ironic. Sheriff Anderson was appointed by city judges in 1988 to clean up the mess left by Shelton J. Stewart, who had been forced from office after his conviction for obstruction of justice. A jury had deadlocked on bribery charges related to his 1986 campaign.

Now it is Sheriff Anderson who's under scrutiny.

How are these officials able to get away with putting their personal interests ahead of the public's? Because there's no sense of moral outrage, no rising tide of public anger.

Both officials could probably get re-elected. That's the pity. John and Joan Q. Public don't seem to care enough to raise Cain when their leaders fail to live by the ethical standards expected of them.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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