Ethics board clears Dixon

Panel finds no cause for complaint in Utech inquiry

January 12, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun Reporter

Nearly a year after beginning an inquiry into whether City Council President Sheila Dixon used her influence to direct city money to a company that employed her sister, Baltimore's Board of Ethics announced yesterday that it has found no cause to pursue the allegations.

In a terse statement, the five-member board said it will not pursue an investigation of votes cast by Dixon that allowed the company, Union Technologies Inc., to receive city contracts nor a February City Council committee hearing in which she asked why the company had not received more business from the city.

The board "has determined, based upon information presently before it, that there is no cause for issuing a complaint against Ms. Dixon alleging a violation of the Baltimore ethics law," the statement read. "Based upon the sensitive nature of this matter and the rights of Ms. Dixon and others, the Board of Ethics is restrained from commenting any further."

The decision, handed down days before Dixon is to be sworn in as mayor to serve out the remainder of Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley's term, appeared to lift a cloud that has hung over her for months, though at least one ethics expert suggested that the guarded announcement could do Dixon - and the city - more harm than good.

Dixon declined to answer questions on the decision but issued a statement saying she was pleased with the board's conclusion.

"I have always sought to put the interests of the citizens of Baltimore first, and I am gratified that the ethics board has recognized that there is no cause for even issuing a complaint," the statement read. "I will continue to focus my energy to the job of continuing to move Baltimore forward."

Meeting behind closed doors on Monday, the board unanimously decided not to pursue the matter with a formal complaint, which, according to the city's ethics law, would have triggered a preliminary investigation, possible hearings and, finally, a determination of whether the ethics law was violated. Because no complaint was filed - by the board, or anyone else - it is not clear how thoroughly the panel reviewed the allegations.

"The public needs to know that these matters are being looked at seriously, that they're being dealt with," said James C. Benton, ethics director of Common Cause, a national watchdog organization in Washington. "The statement ... is so cryptic that it doesn't even begin to instill confidence. It more or less arouses suspicion."

Last February, Robert L. Bogomolny, the chairman of the board of ethics and the president of the University of Baltimore, said the panel would meet to determine "what, if any, action is called for on our behalf." That meeting was prompted by a series of articles in The Sun that questioned Dixon's involvement in the council hearing. At the hearing, Dixon asked Comcast, the city's cable television provider, whether it was still employing minority subcontractors, specifically mentioning Union Technologies, a company also known as Utech.

The council president did not disclose at that meeting, or on her personal ethics statement, that her sister, Janice Dixon, was employed by the company at the time. The law prohibits public officials from participating in "any matter" that involves a sibling's interest or the interest of a relative's employer.

The ethics law also 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 - though city officials have since stripped the company of its certification.

Dixon later disclosed her sister's employment after the first articles appeared in The Sun.

In March, the Maryland State Prosecutor's office began investigating Dixon, her office, the company and several other city agencies. Mildred E. Boyer, the company's owner, was indicted by the office late last month. Since then, the state prosecutor has neither confirmed nor denied whether an investigation continues.

Dixon and her sister have been at the center of controversy before. In July 2003, The Sun reported that Janice Dixon 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 U.S. attorney's office launched an investigation a month earlier, but that inquiry ended in 2005 without any action.

State investigators this year also began looking into $500,000 paid without a contract to manage the council's computer system to Ultimate Network Integration, Dixon's former campaign chairman's company. City procurement rules require that all contracts over $5,000 receive more scrutiny before approval, including a vote by the city's Board of Estimates.

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