Ethics panel criticizes Arundel public safety workers for campaign ads

No laws were violated, but commission finds Cordish backers at fault

February 06, 2011|By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

Anne Arundel County police officers and firefighters who used what appeared to be official vehicles and insignias in pro-slots campaign advertisements acted improperly, though they broke no laws, according to the county Ethics Commission.

The Ethics Commission issued a reprimand of the public safety workers, saying the activity before the vote on a casino at Arundel Mills mall "violates the spirit of the ethics law," following what the commission described as several inquiries from the public about the extent of county employees' involvement in the campaign.

In a report issued after the election, the commission pointed out advertisements in which individual police officers were identified using their ranks. The panel also noted the appearance of apparently uniformed firefighters in photos on the pro-slots campaign's official website, although the commission acknowledged that official insignias were "blurred or hidden."

Additionally, the commission said ads featured "faked" police and fire equipment, and showed volunteer fire stations and photographs of people wearing T-shirts bearing the logo "Police support Question A" standing in front of "unidentifiable public safety vehicles."

"The use of advertising that appears, even by implication, to convey an official government endorsement may not necessarily violate the letter of the ethics law but it is misleading and violates the spirit of the ethics law," the commission wrote in a three-page opinion issued in December.

"When supporters of a ballot question use 'faked' public safety vehicles and equipment, perhaps because they know they cannot use real ones, or pose in front of volunteer-owned stations because they cannot pose in front of county stations, they appear to be attempting to circumvent the law," the commission said.

The county police and fire unions — the Fraternal Order of Police and Professional Fire Fighters Local 1563 — endorsed the Cordish Cos. campaign for ballot Question A, which affirmed zoning clearance for the construction of a $1 billion slots emporium and entertainment complex at Arundel Mills mall. At a recent groundbreaking ceremony for the project, Cordish Cos. Chairman David Cordish lauded the heads of the two unions as key in the successful campaign effort.

The union chiefs, as well as individual police and firefighters, appeared in several advertisements — print and television — expressing support for the measure. In total, Cordish and the referendum's opponents, including the Maryland Jockey Club, spent $12 million on the campaign.

Joseph Weinberg, president of development for Cordish, said in an e-mailed statement that the company's campaign "was very clear in its support from the Fraternal Order of Police and Professional Firefighters Unions."

"When referenced, the logos of these unions were incorporated into all applicable advertisements and materials and were consistent with all legal and ethical requirements," Weinberg wrote.

Unions are not subject to state ethics laws, but local government employees are prohibited from using the prestige of their office for political gain, although they have the right to participate in political activity and express political opinions. The law specifically says law enforcement and other uniformed personnel may not use uniforms or equipment in political advertising.

The letter states that those who participated in the advertisements "have fallen far short" of ethics standards.

"The signs and photos were designed to convey the impression that individual police officers and firefighters, in their official capacity, or even their respective departments, supported a particular ballot question," the letter said.

Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

O'Brien Atkinson, president of the county police union, said that he disagrees with the commission's findings and that he was front-and-center in print and television ads on behalf of his membership, which overwhelmingly supported slots.

"The campaign was very careful about not using the Anne Arundel County logo or police references, simply because that has to be avoided," Atkinson said. "I'm not sure where we could have been more careful. I really don't know what more could be done on our behalf. I think the Cordish Company was very professional with how the campaign was run. They never asked me or the fire union president to do anything we were not comfortable with."

Craig S. Oldershaw, president of the county fire union, did not respond to a message seeking comment Friday. Through a spokesman, County Executive John R. Leopold declined to comment.

Questions about the ethical limitations of police officers appearing in political ads come up occasionally during campaigns. Former County Executive Janet S. Owens fired the then-police chief, who had allowed on-duty officers to appear in print ads for the previous county executive, whom she had recently defeated. The commission issued an opinion saying the county executive she succeeded had abused his office by asking the police chief to arrange the photos.

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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