Auditors say ethics reviews fall short

State worker forms often not checked

December 13, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

The Maryland Ethics Commission has failed to review thousands of financial disclosure forms submitted by state employees and in many cases hasn't checked to make sure they were filed at all, state auditors reported yesterday.

More than 11,000 state workers, elected officials and board appointees are required to file the forms annually to ensure that any business interests and outside employment involving them and their families do not pose a conflict with state affairs. But auditors concluded that the Ethics Commission doesn't have nearly enough staff or technical resources to check that the paperwork is accurate or complete.

"The commission was not adequately performing certain responsibilities to help ensure that public ethics requirements were met," Bruce A. Myers, the chief legislative auditor, wrote in the report.

Commission Executive Director Suzanne S. Fox agreed with many of the auditors' findings, saying in a written response that her staff is not large enough to complete its requirements under the law. In some cases, she said, the agency doesn't have the statutory authority it would need to fully enforce Maryland's ethics standards.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said the General Assembly needs to look into giving the commission more resources to review the reports or hire an outsider to do some of the work.

"It makes no sense to have everybody doing these reports unless they're followed up," Busch said.

Auditors found that the commission staff reviewed just 2,600 of the 11,800 financial disclosure statements they received for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2004. The auditors performed spot checks on 175 employees who were required to file forms and found that 59 of them did not file in calendar year 2003 or 2004, or both.

The auditors found that the commission did little to follow-up with delinquent filers and issued no fines for violations of the law.

State agencies should play a greater role in identifying employees who are required to file forms, and the commission should give the agencies more guidance about their roles in maintaining public ethics, the auditors wrote.

In her reply to the audit, Fox said the agency has nine employees, only three of whom are routinely available to review the financial disclosure statements, "a tedious and labor intensive process."

The reviews - and checks to make sure all employees and appointees who are subject to the law file their forms - could be accomplished with less staff time if the process were more computerized. But the agency has no information technology staff and no money in its budget to develop a new system, Fox wrote.

Although state law specifies penalties for those who don't file, Fox wrote that it's not practical to impose them. State law only allows the commission to levy fines - $2 for every day late, up to $250 - after an investigation and full hearing, she wrote.

The auditors studied the ethics laws and oversight agencies of the federal government and other states and concluded that Maryland has one of the broadest reporting requirements in the nation but a smaller commission staff than many other states.

"The commission will have to take certain actions to improve its oversight," Myers wrote in the audit. "Nevertheless, in our opinion, the effectiveness of these additional efforts and the integrity of the public ethics system are dependent on the availability of additional resources."

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat who chairs a House subcommittee that oversees government ethics laws, said the General Assembly is growing more amenable to good government laws such as campaign finance reform. She added that she has a sense that legislators would likely be willing to offer more support for the commission.

"If this is a charge we think is worth giving to a government agency, I think we ought to back it up," Bobo said.

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