City Council members fault ethics board

Say executive director didn't inform them of law

O'Malley defends council

Eight under investigation for nepotism, business ties

October 21, 2003|By Doug Donovan and Tom Pelton | Doug Donovan and Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Members of the Baltimore City Council lashed out at the city's ethics director last night for criticizing their hiring of relatives and receiving gifts from companies doing business with the city.

"I think the ethics board needs to be investigated, because it is not doing its job," said Councilwoman Pamela V. Carter during a loud meeting at City Hall in which The Sun was also attacked for writing about the issue. "This is an attempt to embarrass us."

Mayor Martin O'Malley defended the council at a news conference yesterday.

O'Malley questioned the ethics board's interpretation of the city ethics law in issuing an opinion Oct. 14 that three council members - Sheila Dixon, John L. Cain and Carter - had violated the law by hiring siblings. The mayor said that council members have been hiring their family members for decades without any problems.

"I don't think any of the council members intentionally did anything wrong," O'Malley said. "This was the tradition, the pattern and the practice."

He added: "There are some council members who would get up on the council floor and talk very proudly about how their father got them into politics by giving them a job on Monday nights being clerks on the council and what an honor that was."

The defense of the council occurs as the U.S. attorney's office investigates at least eight of the 19 members, issuing subpoenas recently to demand documents detailing their hiring practices and ties with local businessmen.

The federal investigation began after a July 27 article in The Sun revealed a majority of council members - 10 of 19 - had a relative on the payroll.

The article also described how members received perks and free tickets, including parking passes from Arrow Parking Inc., which is seeking a tax break from the council to build a garage.

His voice rising as he gripped his microphone last night, Cain accused ethics board executive director Avery Aisenstark of failing to tell council members that hiring siblings is illegal.

While council members have been submitting financial disclosure forms to Aisenstark for years revealing that they had hired the relatives, Aisenstark did not use the forms to warn the council members that what they were doing is questionable, Cain said.

"It boggles my mind that this failure of the ethics board and Aisenstark to do their duty is resulting in us getting the blame, and it's not right," Cain said. "They have ruined my reputation, and they've ruined the reputation of others in the council."

Cain said the city's ethics law is complex, poorly written and hard to understand, and that he had no idea that hiring his sister was wrong.

He called the reporters who wrote about the council's nepotism "mental midgets" more concerned with getting a big story than being fair.

Reached by phone last night, Aisenstark said he saw the council's attacks on television but did not want to respond.

"What was said was wrong on several levels, just factually wrong," said Aisenstark. "But I have no comment."

The city's five-member Board of Ethics is appointed by the mayor and council. Aisenstark, the board's director, is selected by the mayor, two members of his Cabinet, a City Council member and three top officials from local universities.

At a council lunch and again during the council meeting last night, Dixon pressed her colleagues to confess who had been providing information to the newspaper. She angrily demanded to know why The Sun had received a copy of the ethics board's opinion - which is a public record - before she did.

"The media wouldn't get this information, they wouldn't get it if it weren't for someone on this council," Dixon said.

As several council members attacked the ethics board, Councilman Robert W. Curran sounded a cautionary note: "I would warn my colleagues that federal investigators will probably use whatever comments we make against us."

O'Malley questioned the Board of Ethics ruling last week that council members violated the law by accepting parking passes from Arrow. "If they disclosed [the passes], why can't they accept them?" O'Malley said.

Only three of the council's 19 members disclosed the parking passes on forms required by ethics laws, but all received them.

O'Malley then said he did not believe the council members deliberately flouted the ethics law. "It's something that's been going on forever and it probably didn't occur to them" he said.

The ethics law states that council members may not accept gifts from companies doing business with the city. It also requires disclosure if they do accept such gifts - although disclosure does not excuse gifts that are prohibited.

While the city's ethics law does not explicitly prohibit nepotism, its conflict-of-interest provision states that elected officials cannot make decisions that have a financial impact on a "spouse, parent, minor child, brother, or sister."

Because council members control their office budgets, hiring of assistants would fall under this provision, ethics officials said.

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