Prince George's ethics review commission sees challenges in cleaning up county
A commission created by Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) ran headlong into some big challenges Tuesday night as it tried to help Baker figure out ways to clean up county government and rid the county of its "pay to play" reputation.
Some of the testimony to the commission:
---The county has an ethics board, but one of its five positions has been vacant for several years, and Baker's predecessor, Jack B. Johnson, apparently did nothing to fill the seat. Johnson, 61, was indicted Monday on bribery and other charges in a widening federal corruption probe. His wife, Leslie Johnson, now a County Council member, has also been charged in the case. Both Johnsons, who are Democrats, were arrested Nov. 12.
--The office that collects county financial disclosure forms and lobbyist registration is staffed part-time, does not have the manpower to put the information online to make it accessible to the public, and lacks subpoena power and the authority to initiate an investigation. The ethics panel is essentially a "compliance board," said its attorney Anne C. Magner, and the penalties for non-compliance with disclosure requirements are minimal. Magner said that on occasion, the board will publish in its annual report the names of county employees who have not submitted financial disclosure forms.
---The forms that top county employees and elected officials are required to fill out in theory are aimed at identifying conflicts of interest, Magner said, but the staff does not identify those conflicts. Only a member of the public who reviews the paperwork might identify a conflict. That would require a trip to Upper Marlboro, the county seat, since the documents are not online.
--There is no requirement for annual ethics training for county employees. Magner said she has trained mid-level managers, but ethics training for other county employees has never been held in the 24 years she has been on the job, although Magner said she could conduct it if asked.
---The ethics board's staff -- Magner, who also has other duties in the county attorney's office, and a part-time administrative assistant -- review the hundreds of submissions but not to identify potential conflicts, she said. The forms are reviewed "for completeness. We do not review for conflicts. We would have no idea if there were conflicts," she said.
"You would have to know how everybody is connected....We really most of the time have no idea that such and such a company is doing business with the county," she told Baker's panel Tuesday night.
--The ethics board is staffed by the county attorney's office, which reports to the county executive. Magner acknowledged in a separate interview that connection might discourage some people who would want to report wrongdoing.
Still, she said, most county employees understand and abide by the rules, at least as far as she knows. Magner said problems usually are the result of something done by elected officials.
Magner also said that county law is weak on the issue of misusing county resources, otherwise known as diverting public funds or material for personal use. "Under the ethics code it is quite limited," she said. It is possible, however, that county personnel rules might be more stringent, but Magner could not say for certain, pointing out that is not her area of expertise.
"I am concerned about the lack of teeth," said retired Prince George's Circuit Court Judge William Missouri, a member of the review commission. "Right now I don't see you having any enforcement powers."
Also testifying Tuesday night was David Van Dyke, who heads Prince George's Office of Audits and Investigations. Van Dyke said his 16-person office "has some degree of independence from the executive branch," and largely functions as an internal auditor of county government functions. He said his office gets only a few complaints a month, and few of them relate to the office's mandate. He refers them to other county agencies, and complaints his office has received have on occasion led to a criminal investigation, he said.
But he acknowledged that his office has a low profile and said it could do a better job of letting the public know that it has an online complaint form and that people could send tips anonymously. He also said that the general bent of the office was auditing, but that two staff members are trained investigators.
Panel chairman Kurt Schmoke, former Baltimore mayor and currently dean at Howard University Law School, asked Van Dyke if his status as an "at will" employee of the County Council might dampen his office's willingness to challenge council members, or investigate them.
"So you could be gone tomorrow," Schmoke asked. Van Dyke said that was the case.
"Greater independence would really go a long way," Van Dyke said.
Missouri suggested that the position be for a set term that would overlap the four-year terms of the County Council so that if Van Dyke's office did something to affect one council, its members could not get rid of him easily.
"Trust me, I love the County Council," Missouri said. "But for transparency, it would be best if you were not an at will employee."
Former County Council member Peter Shapiro, also a member of the Baker panel, said the audits office "is not perceived to be the watchdog." That raises a question that Baker has also posed to the group: should Prince George's have a separate and independent Office of Inspector General?
"Ethics oversight functions in the county are currently lax. There is a sense that if something serious is going on, then the feds need to come in," Shapiro said.
The review commission will hold another hearing at 9 a.m. Feb. 26 at Prince George's Community College. Panel members hope county personnel officials will attend to explain some of the rules.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers are beginning to examine several measures that could toughen ethics rules in Prince George's. Baker has proposed some bills that would restrict the County Council's oversight of development and limit campaign contributions from developers.
House delegation chairman Melony Griffith (D-Prince George's) has convened a working group, including some of Baker's staff, to try to put together a compromise measure. County Council chairman Ingrid M. Turner (D-Bowie), who had been initially skeptical of the proposals, said late Tuesday that the council is beginning to work on some measures that it hopes to unveil next week.
"Each of the bills has different unintended consequences," Turner said. "We all want to improve the process for all the stakeholders."
Other measures have been proposed by State Senate President Mike Miller (D-Calvert) whose district includes a slice of Prince George's, and Prince George's Senate delegation chairman Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Prince George's).
MIranda S. Spivack
| February 16, 2011; 5:20 PM ET
Categories: Prince George's County | Tags: prince george's county; rushern l. baker III; kurt schmoke; william missouri; david van dyke; anne magner;
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