For mayor, no conflict of interest

Our view: Mayor Rawlings-Blake's explanation of her husband's job should settle concerns

March 16, 2011

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has exercised all due caution by selectively abstaining from votes on city contracts with Johns Hopkins Health System, where her husband, Kent Blake, has been employed since December. City ethics rules generally bar officials from participating in matters involving a close relative who might benefit financially, and Ms. Rawlings-Blake has voted on a dozen contracts involving the sprawling entity that is Johns Hopkins, but none of them directly involve the branch of health the system her husband works for. Given Mr. Blake's relatively minor role at Hopkins, that standard is more than sufficient to assure the public that the mayor has acted properly.

Given the heat of the mayoral race and the well-publicized ethical lapses of her immediate predecessor, Ms. Rawlings-Blake may face criticism for not stepping away from all matters involving Johns Hopkins, or at least the Johns Hopkins Health System, of which Mr. Blake's direct employer, Johns Hopkins Community Physicians, is a part. But as a practical matter, the idea that a mayor of Baltimore must recuse herself on all decisions involving the Johns Hopkins Health System may be unworkable. It is the city's second-largest employer and a major player in urban development as well as a provider of vital services to the city. The idea that Ms. Rawlings-Blake can effectively lead the city while avoiding any matter related to the Hopkins health system is simply not credible.

At the same time, it is not entirely clear, as City Solicitor George Nilson told The Sun's Julie Scharper, that the city's ethics code would recognize a difference between Hopkins Community Physicians and the larger entity of which it is a part. The statute requires an elected official to disqualify himself or herself from any matter that involves a "business entity in which … a disqualifying relative is a partner, officer, director, trustee, employee or agent." Taken literally, that requirement could prohibit Baltimore's mayor from having any dealings at all with Hopkins Health System, which clearly isn't in the city's best interest.

This is the sort of conundrum that comes up with increasing frequency as more spouses of elected officials, of both sexes, have careers of their own. Interpreted broadly enough, the ethics code could make the employment options for a mayor's spouse quite limited — after all, what job in Baltimore wouldn't pose some kind of potential conflict of interest?

The situation calls for a bit of common sense. Martin O'Malley, when he was mayor, should not have been expected to recuse himself from all matters related to the criminal justice system simply because his wife, Katie, is a district court judge. Sheila Dixon, however, clearly shouldn't have been voting on tax breaks for her boyfriend's development company right before jaunting off on weekend getaways with him.

It appears that Ms. Rawlings-Blake's situation is akin to the former example, not the latter. The mayor did herself no favors by initially refusing to explain exactly what her husband's job entails, saying "My husband isn't an elected official. I am." The only way to give the public comfort about a potential conflict of interest is prompt and complete disclosure, and her initial refusal may have served to sow unnecessary doubt. Ms. Rawlings-Blake belatedly recognized that on Wednesday when her office released her husband's official job description, which makes clear that Mr. Blake's position is legitimate and far removed from the kind of matters his wife deals with on the Board of Estimates.

Mr. Blake's duties are to: "Assist patients requesting services within JHCP by coordinating appointment scheduling, maintaining patient demographics, performing insurance pre-verification … pre-registration and all necessary pre-visit functions … in a call center environment. Provide patients with information on physicians, directions to locations and educational materials. Complete necessary referrals for urgent care when same day appointments not available. Interact with patients and staff in a friendly, polite and professional manner as the entry point to the JHCP Community."

Ms. Rawlings-Blake's standard of disqualifying herself from involvement in all matters related to Johns Hopkins Community Physicians is appropriate — possibly even over-cautious. But there would have been no way for the public to make an informed judgment about that without knowing what it was that her husband did.

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