Silence is not golden in Dixon's ethics case

January 12, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

You hear politicians say it all the time: They can't talk - although Lord knows they would love to clear the air and get their side out there - while the investigation is continuing.

Yesterday, the city Board of Ethics, which began investigating City Council President Sheila Dixon almost a year ago, said it has found "no cause" to allege that she violated ethics laws.

Finally, you might think, just as Dixon is about to become mayor, we would get to hear her side of this story, her explanation of why she voted on contracts that went to a company that employed her sister (despite a city ethics law that prohibits public officials from participating in "any matter" involving the interest of a relative's employer). Finally, Dixon would say why she failed to note on her financial disclosure statement that her sister worked for this company (despite an ethics law that requires such revelations when it involves firms doing business with the city).

Instead, Dixon yesterday issued a prepared, two-sentence statement expressing her pleasure with how the ethics board "has appropriately concluded that there were no ethics violations on my part."

That's it. No further explanation, no definitive dispersal of the cloud that has hovered over her since last year, when The Sun revealed that Dixon advocated for and voted three times on a contract that ultimately awarded nearly $1 million of subcontracts to Utech, a company that employed her sister Janice Dixon.

Dixon isn't alone in her silence. Neither is the city's ethics board offering much explanation beyond its equally brief statement that it found no cause to allege an ethics violation on Dixon's part.

The board's silence creates more questions than it answers: How did the five members come to this determination? Exactly what is "the information presently before it" that was considered as part of their inquiry?

And, more broadly, here are my questions: Shouldn't the essence of ethics be transparency? Wasn't that the whole point of governmental ethics - that they would prevent the backroom dealings, the quid pro quos, the back-scratching, the palm-greasing and the cronyism that has plagued any number of city, state and federal bodies over the years? Aren't ethics boards supposed to lessen rather than increase cynicism about how government works?

But instead, much of what the city ethics board does takes place behind closed and decidedly opaque doors. "The proceedings, meetings, and activities of the Ethics Board and its staff relating to the complaint are confidential," the city's code intones, "and neither the Ethics Board nor its staff may disclose any information relating to the complaint."

That seems fair, generally. Anyone can file an ethics complaint against someone - it doesn't mean it's true, and if it's ultimately found to be baseless, well, the suspicion has already been unleashed. "Which office do I go to," former Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan famously asked in 1987 after being exonerated of fraud and larceny charges, "to get my reputation back?"

But in the case of Dixon, the lack of transparency seems more a matter of convenience than necessity. The story is already out there. In fact, the only reason the ethics board even considered the matter is because The Sun - in carefully reported stories whose veracity has not been challenged - raised the matter of Dixon's actions regarding Utech.

Dixon may see the matter as closed. She's already exonerated herself in this matter once before: Last month, when a state investigation resulted in the indictment of Mildred E. Boyer, the head of Utech, on charges of theft, lying on loan documents and filing false tax returns, Dixon said none of the allegations had anything to do with her and it would be "inappropriate" for her to comment further.

The next day, though, Dixon did have one more thing to say: The fact that only Boyer was indicted proves her own innocence in the whole affair.

By Dixon's tally, both the state prosecutor and the city's ethics board have cleared her. So, when, I wonder, will she deem it appropriate to explain this whole mess to the city that she is about to lead?

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.