By Stephen Janis, Special to the AFRO
The fallout from the scandal that engulfed former Mayor Catherine Pugh over the sale of books to various institutions and contractors continued, as the Baltimore City Council passed legislation that would tighten the city’s ethics code and bolster requirements for disclosure of outside ties for city officials.
The bill would expand the range of reporting requirements for city officials and also broaden the type of employees who have to file. Another critical addition is city officials must disclose if they serve on the board of any organization.
The bill’s sponsor, Councilman Ryan Dorsey said the legislation would prevent public officials and critical employees from concealing business ties from public scrutiny.
“Financial disclosures make it easier for journalists, the Office of the Inspector General, and others to ensure government officials are above-board in their dealings with taxpayer resources,” Dorsey told the AFRO.
“That purpose is hindered, though, when every year there are countless questions of whether or not an individual is even required to file, and when there is no codified system of what to do when individuals fail to file as required,” he added.
“This bill addresses those concerns, but also adds requirements to disclose certain things, like board memberships and business or real estate holdings that the current law allows to be easily hidden behind a shell corporation.”
Mayor Catherine Pugh allegedly did not disclose her membership on the board of the University of Maryland Medical System. UMMES bought roughly 100,000 books from Pugh, some of which were donated to the school system, but others reportedly were never located.
The measure was one in a series of reforms to increase transparency at City Hall and clarify what types of conflicts must be reported and when.
The city’s ethics code was added to the city charter nearly 15 years ago and was aimed at forcing city officials to disclose business interests and ownership that could create conflicts in both contracting and legislation. The forms are filed annually and since 2014 have been posted online.
The forms also require that public officials disclose gifts in excess of $50 from people or entities doing business with the city.
But, compliance has been a problem for some city officials.
Former Mayor Sheila Dixon did not disclose gifts in 2004 from a real estate developer she was dating, Ronald Lipscomb. That failure led to charges that were later dropped.
Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Daryl DeSousa also ran afoul of the ethics law, when he did not file disclosure forms in 2015 and 2016. In March, DeSousa was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison for tax fraud.
Currently both the Maryland State Prosecutor’s office and the FBI are investigating Pugh’s sale of hundreds of thousands of her Healthy Holly books to both non-profits and business entities alike. The sales netted Pugh nearly $800,000 and prompted her to resign.
The current bill passed unanimously, a vote which reflected widespread support among the council for a stricter approach to policing behavior at city hall.
“The passage of this bill is a signal that this council is serious about accountability and transparency. It has to start with us,” Council President Brandon Scott told the AFRO.