Ethics Matters News

STATE ETHICS COMMISSION DOES NOT APPROVE NEW ETHICS CODE
The State Ethics Commission has declined to approve the new County Ethics Law introduced by Mr. Cassell and adopted unanimously by the County Commissioners in November of 2005. Ethics Matters has learned that the State Ethics Commission sent a letter of disapproval to the County on April 26, 2006, citing problems with the County’s law as enacted.
Maryland State Law requires that the provisions of county ethics laws be “similar to” the provisions of the State Ethics Law governing conflicts of interest, gifts, and lobbying.  The State Ethics Commission reviews and approves county ethics laws based on this “similar to” standard.  The problems cited by the State:

The first of  two problems cited by the State in its April 26 letter is the provision in the new County ethics law that allows a government official to decide on matters that directly affect a business owned by the official’s brother, sister, parent or child, as long as they don’t live in the official’s household. That means, according to the new County law, a government official can discuss and decide on a contract between the County and a company owned by his son.  There is no longer a requirement for the County official to recuse him or herself in this situation.
The State Ethics Commission also expressed its concern over the new exemption authority.  It allows the County Ethics Commission to exempt the County (or any other part-time official) from all the major provisions of the ethics law if the official’s outside employment does not present a conflict with his or her official duties. Thus, under the new Ethics Law, a Commissioner who is retired, or manages a movie theatre, or works for United Airlines, could be exempted from all major provisions of the ethics code including the receipt of gifts or conflicts due to property ownership or business interests held.

More problems
Ethics Matters believes that in addition to the problems thus far cited by the State, there are additional shortcomings in the County’s new law that stand in the way of its approval by the State. The County misled the State about the new law.  In August of 2005, the State found problems in an earlier version of Mr. Cassell’s proposed law and recommended specific changes.  In its December 20, 2005 letter transmitting the newly enacted law to the State Ethics Commission, the County assured the State that the law “as written, now incorporates all of the recommendations made in the State Ethics Commission’s letter to us dated August 30, 2005.”  That assurance to the State was not the truth.  The truth is the Commissioners removed an important State recommendation regarding the level of evidence in ethics cases before shortly before they enacted the law. 
The Commissioners will have to provide the County with a new lawful, amended Ethics Law.  There are other questionable aspects to the law they should consider fixing.  One is the change that made it acceptable for a government official or employee to have a financial interest in, or be employed by, a company that is doing business with his or her government agency.  Another is the provision that removes large numbers of County employees from meeting any of the standards of the Ethics code.  The Commissioners should also revisit a couple of their earlier amendments that weaken some of the regulations concerning lobbyists.
Query
The Board of Ethics Matters read the State’s letter at their May meeting.  Board members wondered, “How it is possible that, after three years in the making, our County has ended up with an unlawful ethics law - one that the State cannot approve.  Many counties exceed State requirements.  Why is it so hard for us just to meet them? “

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE NEW QAC ETHICS LAW

May 13, 2003 County Commissioners ask QAC Ethics Commission to update 1984 County Ethics Law
QAC Ethics Commission sends completed draft of proposed updated Ethics Law to State Ethics Commission for comment, is told that the State would likely approve the proposed law if passed

September 2, 2004 QAC Ethics Commission submits proposed Ethics Law to County Commissioners
Commissioners hold workshop on proposed Ethics Law
February 15, 2005 Proposed Law, with changes, introduced as 05-04 by Mr. Koval
March 8, 2005 Public Hearing on 05-04
May 17, 2005 Commissioners amend 05-04; amended law is introduced by Mr. Cassell as 05-04 - Amendment No.1
June 7, 2005 The then-chair of County Ethics Commission tells County Commissioners at Press and Public Comment that some of their amendments are unlawful, especially in regard to Conflicts of Interest and the inability of the Ethics Commission to enforce the law, and that 05-04, Amendment No. 1 could not be approved by the State Ethics Commission.
August 27, 2005 State Ethics Commission sends letter to the County both requiring changes and recommending changes to 05-04, Amendment No. 1.
November 15, 2005 Commissioners Workshop on County Attorney - Amendment No. 2 “incorporating” State Ethics Commissions comments.
               Commissioners make other changes that are incorporated into 05-04 � Amendment No. 3, introduced by Mr. Cassell.  
Chair of Ethics Matters tells Commissioners at Press and Public Comment that 05-04-Amendment No. 3 contains unlawful provisions and it could not be approved by the State

Commissioners unanimously pass 05-04 Amendment No. 3, to become County’s new ethics law December 30, 2006
December 20, 2005  County sends State Ethics Commission a copy of 05-04, Amendment No. 3
April 26, 2006  State Ethics Commission informs County Commissioners that it can not approve 05-04 Amendment No. 3.</SPAN></FONT></P>
May 16, 2006
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Posted on 16 May 2006 by admin
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