Dixon sets date to fire her sister as city aide

Council president issues response to ethics ruling

October 22, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon struck a more conciliatory tone yesterday on ethics issues as she set a date for firing her sister, a move intended to address concerns about the "appearance of nepotism in city government."

Making what she termed her formal response to the Board of Ethics' recent ruling that she improperly hired her sister as an assistant, Dixon said she has conducted herself according to her campaign promises to demonstrate "accountability and not `business as usual.'"

"I cannot go before [city agencies] and pass judgment on their budgets if my own conduct is in question," she said in yesterday's statement. "I also understand and respect the sentiments of Baltimore residents who are concerned by the appearance of nepotism in city government, and to that end my sister's employment with my office will come to an end on Nov. 21, 2003.

"As a leader, I must practice what I preach. I must adhere to my own counsel, and set examples of professional conduct for my colleagues, our employees and the people of Baltimore," she said, concluding the letter.

Dixon, who said last week she intended to fire her sister Janice Dixon but did not set a date, also stated that she never tried to hide her employment.

"I have disclosed [her hiring] to the Department of Legislative Reference every year on my financial disclosure forms," she said in the statement. "It is interesting to me that for the last three years, Legislative Reference has been aware that my sister was working for me, but the Ethics Board only questioned it after The Baltimore Sun wrote about it in the middle of an election campaign."

That sentiment more closely echoed her defiance expressed on Monday when she attacked The Sun at the council's meeting.

"No matter where you go with this witch hunt, no matter who you discredit, it only makes me stronger," Dixon said.

James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, an ethics watchdog organization, said Dixon's decision to fire her sister does "solve the immediate political problem for herself."

But, he added, her comments and portions of her statement do not "point the way to more ethical government."

"Ignorance of the law is no excuse for hiring your relatives and undermining the public trust," he said.

In July, The Sun reported that 10 of 19 council members had hired family members to serve as paid assistants. In addition, council members get free parking at garages owned by Arrow Parking and receive free tickets to movies and other events.

Two rulings

Last week, the Board of Ethics issued two general advisories on those issues. The first stated that only council members who have hired siblings -- Dixon, John L. Cain and Pamela V. Carter -- were in violation of the ethics law. The second said all council members erred in accepting free passes from Arrow because the company does business before the council.

The ethics rulings come at a time when the U.S. attorney's office is investigating at least eight council members.

On Monday, several council members echoed Dixon's complaint that the ethics board and the Department of Legislative Reference never alerted them to ethics violations.

Avery Aisenstark, director of both the department and the board, would not comment.

`No accountability'

The ethics board, however, does not have the authority to take any action on what appears in financial disclosure forms, which are required to be filed at the legislative reference office.

Hundreds of city employees file the forms, which are available for public review. The Board of Ethics can review the documents if someone files a formal complaint or the issue is brought to their attention, as it was by the newspaper.

A bill to revise the ethics law contains a provision to give the board power to issue a complaint. But Mayor Martin O'Malley said the provision was a mistake and should be removed.

Browning said the idea that the ethics board should alert them to violations while not being able to investigate them without a complaint would be the "worst of both worlds for citizens."

"It's no accountability," Browing said. "We need a stronger ethics board to launch investigations."

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