SUBPOENAS ISSUED last week to several City Council members raise troubling questions: What suspected illegal acts are the U.S. attorney hoping to prove? Is the City Council the target, or are the subpoenas part of a much wider net that may have little to do with elected officials?
There are no ready answers because the federal prosecutors aren't talking. But the subpoenas have already produced one salutary result: They have sensitized some City Council members to ethical concerns they long had chosen to ignore.
City Council President Sheila Dixon certainly got the message. For months, she kept insisting she had every right to employ her sister as a council assistant - even though the city's ethics law forbids hiring siblings. After at least eight of her colleagues received subpoenas, she suddenly changed her mind and fired her sister.
Other council members who have demonstrated similar blind spots on ethics must correct those lapses as well. Not just because the practice of hiring relatives is one of the areas about which the prosecutors are raising questions, but because nepotism is not conducive to honest, efficient government and cannot be tolerated.
It is no doubt coincidental that the subpoenas from U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio, a Republican, arrive just as the council is discussing proposals to tighten the city's ethics law so that it conforms with stricter state regulations. But perhaps the subpoenas will spark that effort along as well. The rules should be so clear that there can be no doubt as to what is acceptable conduct and what is not.
From what is publicly known of the council's ethical slips, though, they do not seem to be significant enough to warrant a federal probe. That's why speculation yesterday centered on the possibility that a grand jury is seeking to substantiate a whistleblower's information about the activities of some other city agency.
The wording of the subpoenas suggests federal prosecutors are interested in campaign contributors to Democratic politicians who have substantial dealings with the city. Beyond that, however, everything is conjecture.
It's worth noting that Baltimore's council members have just come through a season of heavy fund raising and now, with the primary past, are in reality still campaigning for the general election in November 2004.
So the sooner the probe is completed, the better. To the extent that it has reminded members of the City Council that ethics laws should be taken seriously, it has had a worthwhile, if perhaps unintended, effect. Council members might note that abiding by both the letter and the spirit of such codes of conduct is one of the best ways to keep suspicions and prosecutors at bay.