Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has voted to approve more than $900,000 in deals with Johns Hopkins since her husband began working for one of its divisions late last year — a possible violation of the city ethics code.
Following inquiries from a Baltimore Sun reporter, the city's attorney hinted Tuesday that the mayor might recuse herself from future votes involving the Johns Hopkins Health System.
Rawlings-Blake, a member of the city's spending board, has approved 12 grants or city contracts with Hopkins since her husband of 11 years began working as an intake coordinator with Johns Hopkins Community Physicians in December.
But she said that she has not voted on any deals directly involving the division, a network of medical practices located throughout the state.
"I abstain from any vote directly related to Hopkins Community Physicians, where Kent works," said Rawlings-Blake, who is one of five members of the Baltimore Board of Estimates.
According to the city's ethics code, "a public servant may not participate in and must disqualify himself or herself from any matter if" it involves a "business entity in which… a disqualifying relative is a partner, officer, director, trustee, employee, or agent."
Rawlings-Blake asked the city's attorney to look into the issue in response to questions from The Sun.
City Solicitor George Nilson said Tuesday that he was investigating whether Kent Blake's position would necessitate that the mayor abstain from all votes involving Hopkins.
"The Hopkins corporate structure is not simple, easy and normal," Nilson said. "It's complicated."
The Johns Hopkins University, which includes the Homewood campus and the schools of medicine and public health, is distinct from the Johns Hopkins Health System, which includes the main hospital in East Baltimore and Johns Hopkins Community Physicians, among other units.
The university, with 27,000 workers, is the largest private employer in the state, according to the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. The medical system, with 20,273, ranks second.
Nilson said that while it appears acceptable for Rawlings-Blake to participate in decisions involving the university, it is less clear from an ethical standpoint whether she should be voting on issues involving the medical system.
"A lawyerly, narrow view of things could reach a conclusion that she is free to vote on matters [involving divisions of the health system other than Johns Hopkins Community Physicians] because it's clear that her husband is employed by a separate legal entity," Nilson said.
"But a more expansive view that would be more restrictive of her participation would say that the Hopkins medical institutions could be looked at as one entity," he said.
Nilson said he had not yet briefed the mayor on his findings.
"I'm going to lay out the two choices to her, and I think I know what she will prefer," he said. He said Rawlings-Blake has a "strong ethical compass."
City ethics board Chairwoman Linda Pierson did not respond to a request for comment.
Independent watchdogs were divided over whether Rawlings-Blake's votes would constitute a violation.
Judy Nadler, an expert in government ethics at Santa Clara University in California, said the mayor's votes "raise a red flag."
"In an era of tremendous cynicism and distrust in government … you really need that firewall," said Nadler, a former mayor of Santa Clara and now a senior fellow in government ethics at the university's Markulla Center for Applied Ethics. "You need to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest."
Nadler said Rawlings-Blake should recuse herself from all decisions involving the medical institution. "Even if you're talking about a branch of Hopkins, it is part of the organization and the organization is made up of its parts," she said. "From an ethical perspective, I don't think you can split the hair that finely."
Robert Wechsler, research director of City Ethics, a nonpartisan group based in Connecticut, agreed that the votes could create an appearance of impropriety. "In governmental ethics, appearances are important," he said. "If I were her adviser, I would say maybe you shouldn't be voting on these things."
But Susan Wichmann, executive director of the independent watchdog Common Cause Maryland, said that she would be troubled only if it appeared Rawlings-Blake's votes in some way benefitted her husband.
"Our concern would be whether or not the mayor voting on these contracts is a way to advance her husband's career," Wichmann said.
Rawlings-Blake declined to provide specifics of her husband's job duties.
"My husband isn't an elected official," she said. "I am."
A spokesman for Hopkins hospital confirmed that Blake had been hired Dec. 13, but said he was not authorized to divulge details of his employment.