Panel suggests council fire kin

3 who employ siblings violating law, opinion says

`Long-standing practice' in city

Relatives could be rehired with estimates board OK

October 15, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

The three Baltimore City Council members who employ siblings as their assistants are violating city ethics law and should fire their relatives or face possible fines, according to a Board of Ethics' opinion released yesterday.

The ethics board's first official position on council nepotism also tempered the harsh remedy of termination by stating that the elected officials' relatives could be reinstated to city payrolls with the approval of the Board of Estimates, which governs the city's fiscal policy.

The three council members employing siblings are President Sheila Dixon, John L. Cain of the 1st District and Pamela V. Carter of the 2nd District. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to city payroll records, Dixon's sister, Janice, earned $14,732.89; Cain's sister, Ottolie McJilton, made $26,736.22; and Carter's brother, Sidney Carter, was paid $11,619.

Carter said she now knows she has no other choice but to fire her brother. Carter said she would not seek Board of Estimates approval for her brother's reinstatement in order to avoid "a mess."

"If that's what you have to do, that's what you have to do," said Carter, who lost her bid for the Democratic nomination in the Sept. 9 primary and will leave office in December next year.

Cain could not be reached for comment. Dixon's spokeswoman, Caprece Jackson-Garrett, said the president "has not had an opportunity to peruse" the ethics board's opinion and had "no comment."

The ethics board states in its opinion that the ethics law's conflict-of-interest provision prohibits council members from making decisions that financially affect a family member, defined as a spouse, parent, minor child, brother or sister. The only exception to the law is if the council member had obtained the Board of Estimates approval and disclosed the employment to the ethics board.

"To the best of our knowledge, none of the current Council members has ever made any such disclosure to this board or obtained any such approval from the Board of Estimates," states the five-page letter signed by ethics board Chairman Norman E. Parker Jr. and Avery Aisenstark, the director of the city's Department of Legislative Reference.

The hiring of relatives by elected officials became an issue in the Sept. 9 council primary after The Sun reported July 27 that a majority of council members -10 of 19 - have hired kin.

Six of the council's 19 members-Carter, Kwame Osayaba Abayomi, Agnes Welch, Bernard C. "Jack" Young, Paula Johnson Branch and Lois A. Garey - employ their adult children. One councilman, Robert W. Curran, employs a niece and another, Kenneth N. Harris Sr., employs his mother-in-law.

None of these relatives is prohibited from being hired in the current law. The council, however, is debating a revised ethics law that would prohibit hiring such relatives. The ethics board has suggested that the existing relatives employed be grandfathered into the new law.

But in reference to the violations of the existing law, the ethics board stated: "Spouses, siblings, and parents clearly are among those" prohibited by the ethics law. "Accordingly, any participation in their appointment by the Councilmember ... is expressly prohibited."

The ethics board's letter states that council members violating the law could face civil penalties up to $1,000 for each day the violations continue.

The Board of Ethics, however, has no enforcement powers. Its opinion was issued to detail what the ethics law does and does not allow and how violations are enforced, the letter states. Only the city solicitor, Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr., can decide whether to enforce the ethics law's penalties when violations are evident.

Zollicoffer said he did not know when - or if - he would take action. He said hiring relatives by council members has been "a long-standing practice and no one has taken issue with it" until it was reported in the newspaper.

Zollicoffer, a Board of Estimates member, said he wants to give himself and council members enough time to "digest" the ethics board's opinion before he decides whether to ask the court to impose civil penalties.

With Mayor Martin O'Malley traveling in England yesterday, it was unclear whether the Board of Estimates would approve any requested reinstatement. O'Malley, who has said he is not opposed to hiring relatives, controls the five-member Board of Estimates through his appointments of Zollicoffer and Public Works Director George L. Winfield. Dixon heads the board, but would have to abstain from any vote concerning her sister. The fifth member is Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, who could not be reached yesterday for comment.

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