Ethics inquiry could be awkward

Dixon could oversee board during probe

December 08, 2006|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,Sun reporter

Since February, Baltimore's Board of Ethics has delayed a detailed review of City Council President Sheila Dixon's participation in official business that benefited a company that employed her sister.

Next month, the City Council president becomes mayor, giving her authority over the very board charged with offering an opinion on her actions.

The transition - which becomes official when Mayor Martin O'Malley becomes governor - creates a situation that is at least awkward.

While Dixon's staff says she has not expressed interest in replacing the board, at least two of the five members could leave soon after O'Malley's departure.

"We now have an incoming mayor who is going to choose members of the board that is charged with investigating her," said James C. Benton, ethics director of Common Cause, a national watchdog organization in Washington. "The first words that come to mind are: hot mess."

Ruffin Brown, Dixon's executive director, said the council president is content to let any reviews proceed and that she has "given no indication she will change the ethics board."

"She wants the process to take its course," Brown said. "She will be proven to be free and clear."

City Ethics Board Chairman Robert L. Bogomolny, president of the University of Baltimore, declined to be interviewed.

Avery Aisenstark, the ethics board's legal counsel and director of Baltimore's legislative reference agency, said it is not unusual for an "administrative body to hold back on potential action when a similar matter is under investigation for criminal action."

"The state prosecutor has better tools of investigation," Aisenstark said, while the ethics panel might get in the way.

In February, Bogomolny said his panel would begin examining whether Dixon acted properly during a City Council committee hearing in January and at three Board of Estimates meetings over the past two years on matters involving a company called Utech, which had employed her sister Janice.

The city's ethics law prohibits public officials from participating in "any matter" that involves a sibling's interest or the interest of a relative's employer. It says public officials must recuse themselves from participating in such matters, if they have knowledge of their relative's position. In addition, the law forbids officials from using their "prestige of office" for the private gain of another person.

Dixon's office had said that staff did not alert the council president that her sister's company was on Board of Estimates agendas. At the council hearing on whether Comcast, the city's cable television provider, was still employing minority subcontractors, Dixon specifically asked about Utech without mentioning her sister's employment.

The ethics law requires public officials to disclose whether siblings or other relatives work for companies that do business with the city or are regulated by the city. Utech was regulated by the city's Minority and Women's Business Opportunity Office, but Dixon did not disclose her sister's job until after The Sun reported it.

In March, the state prosecutor began investigating Dixon, her office, Utech and several other city agencies. State investigators also began probing another issue: $500,000 that Dixon's office had paid to her former campaign chairman's company, Ultimate Network Integration, without a proper written contract. An e-mail obtained by The Sun showed that Dixon's chief of staff, Beatrice Tripps, worked out a deal to keep payments under $5,000.

City procurement rules require that all contracts over $5,000 be approved by the five-member Board of Estimates, which is chaired by Dixon and includes Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, O'Malley and two mayoral Cabinet members.

After The Sun articles, Dixon disciplined two staff members.

Ethics experts said they believe the city's ethics panel should rule on the matters before Dixon becomes mayor and not wait for state prosecutors.

Although Maryland State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh neither confirms nor denies investigations, city officials and others confirm search warrants and the receipt of several subpoenas for documents.

"Why do you have an ethics board in the first place if it doesn't do anything?" Benton, of Common Cause, asked.

Dixon and her sister have been in ethical trouble before. In July 2003, The Sun reported that Dixon's sister Janice worked in the council president's office as a paid employee. Several other council members also employed relatives.

Less than three months later, the ethics board issued an opinion saying such employment violated city regulations, forcing the council president to fire her sister.

The ethics board, which was chaired by Norman E. Parker Jr. at the time, issued the October ruling even though the U.S. attorney's office had launched an investigation a month earlier. The federal investigation ended in 2005 without any action.

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