Ethics Board finds council violated law with passes

Few reported free parking, entry to zoo, other events

October 16, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

The entire Baltimore City Council violated the city's ethics law by accepting and, in most cases, not disclosing free parking passes from a company doing business with the city, according to a 13-page opinion released yesterday by the Board of Ethics.

The city board's "general advisory" was its second in as many days to officially outline which of the council's questionable perks and hiring practices run afoul of the ethics law.

A report in The Sun in July revealed that a majority of council members have hired relatives as paid assistants and that the elected officials received free passes to Arrow Parking garages and free entry to events at the Baltimore Zoo, 1st Mariner Arena and the Senator Theatre.

The board's first opinion, released Tuesday, dealt with nepotism and stated that three council members who have hired siblings violated the ethics law and should promptly fire their relatives. Yesterday's opinion focused solely on the acceptance of gifts and was distributed to all city agencies.

While the board ruled that accepting parking passes from Arrow violates ethics law, it also stated - with some reservations - that accepting the arena, zoo and theater passes was "not clearly prohibited."

"Nonetheless, the failure of many recipients to disclose the receipt of these passes is distressing," stated the opinion, in a letter signed by Norman E. Parker Jr., the board's chairman; and Avery Aisenstark, director of the Department of Legislative Reference. "Perhaps even more distressing is the acceptance, and nondisclosure, of the Arrow parking passes."

The city's ethics law prohibits gifts from entities that are doing - or can be expected to do - business with the council. The law also states that council members may not use the "prestige of office" for their "private gain."

All 19 council members said in July that they did receive the passes and the parking cards, which allow free short-term stays in Arrow's 12 parking garages.

The problem? Arrow's garages are on land regulated by zoning ordinances passed by the council, the board's opinion stated. In addition, Arrow is involved in a joint venture seeking a tax break from the council to build a garage on West Fayette Street.

The Board of Ethics stated that council members must return their parking cards, a step the elected officials took shortly after The Sun's report. Arrow also deactivated the cards. The company's vice president, Ben Greenwald, has said he provided the passes for years but never to curry favor with council.

The board also stated that council members must list all passes and their use on financial disclosure reports due Nov. 1.

The board's ruling was not all bad news for council members. It said the arena, zoo and theater passes fell under an exception allowing the acceptance of tickets to cultural or sporting events as long as the passes are extended as a courtesy to all council members.

But the board was not entirely pleased with these passes. It expressed concern over those gifts because the venues "are or may be `regulated,' `controlled,' or `substantially and materially affected' by the City Council."

The opinion said an example of such a regulation was a council bill approved in April that allowed billboards to be installed on 1st Mariner Arena, which is owned by the city but operated by a private company.

The city also subsidizes the zoo and has guaranteed loans to the Senator Theatre.

The board stated that passes from such entities should ideally be reserved for "special events," which is what state ethics law requires, and not for entry for nearly any event.

"The exception for tickets or free admissions was designed to authorize a public official, without personal expense, to participate, as an official, at a special event or ceremony - not to provide public officials (and their invitees) with unlimited free entertainment at `common or everyday events' such as movies, rock concerts, monster-truck rallies, and the like," the board's opinion stated.

"Nonetheless, we recognize that the city's version of this exception has not been so narrowly read and applied in the past," it stated. "And we do not believe that this is an appropriate forum for newly adopting a narrow reading of this sort."

The board also raised serious concerns that most council members did not report any of the gifts on financial disclosure forms.

Only Councilmen Robert W. Curran and Kenneth N. Harris Sr., both of the 3rd District, reported all of the gifts. Council Vice President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake, a 5th District representative, reported all but the zoo pass. The remaining 16 council members did not report any of the gifts on their financial disclosure forms.

The passes should have been disclosed whether they are "used frequently, only occasionally, or not at all," according to the opinion, because their potential value exceeds the ethics law's $50 reporting threshold.

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