Both Governor and General Assembly to Examine State Ethics Laws

Ethics is likely to be a large focus of the General Assembly during the 2020 Session. Recently, several elected officials in Maryland have been the subject of investigations over ethics violations. In response legislative leadership and the Governor have both stated their intent to put forth ethics reform proposals, with the Governor electing to include it as the centerpiece of his legislative package.

The Governor has declared the 2020 General Assembly Session the “Accountability Session”. His proposals include a significant increase in the maximum fine that courts can impose on an elected official convicted of bribery, and allows the ethics commission to impose civil penalties against state employees and public officials without a court order.

House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne Jones has put forth a proposal to ban both candidates for public office and elected officials from having an immediate family member serve as their campaign treasurer.

Ethics laws in Maryland are comprised of three key components: (1) financial disclosure; (2) conflict of interest; and (3) lobbying. Maryland law mandates that local ethics laws “shall be similar” to those created by the State. Courts have interpreted this to mean identical, unless there is something specific to a particular jurisdiction that requires a difference. This has been interpreted strictly, limiting local flexibility.

Financial Disclosure

Laws require that elected officials disclose financial holdings that may influence their decision making. It is important to accurately report assets up front, and to maintain those records over time.

Conflicts of Interest

Current law requires the disclosure of potential conflicts of interest, and similar to financial disclosures, it is important that elected officials report and update those records.

Lobbying Regulations

Laws restrict lobbyists from giving elected officials certain gifts. It is important to disclose any gifts received from a lobbyist.

Governor Hogan has faced criticism over the years that has resurfaced recently in regards to his private firm. Critics say that the Governor’s company has benefited from actions taken by his administration, and are asking questions regarding his knowledge of his companies operations currently run by his brother.

There are rumors that the General Assembly may investigate. From coverage in Maryland Matters:

During a Q&A with talk show host Marc Steiner in Annapolis, House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) said she was aware of recent media reports that have raised questions about the governor’s real estate firm, a company that bears his name.

The report, in Washington Monthly, which expanded on Maryland Matters reporting from 2018, suggested that the Maryland Department of Transportation has knowingly spent tax dollars on projects near HOGAN Company properties.

“I’m aware of the article as it relates to transportation,” Jones told Steiner during the annual “Annapolis Summit,” sponsored by The Daily Record.

“We do have a committee that will be looking at that and may have a briefing as it relates to that, and how it would pertain to what, as a legislature, we could do,” she added. “I’m most certain that they will have that briefing.”

Hours later, as news organizations began reporting on Jones’ comments, the speaker’s chief of staff, Alexandra M. Hughes, released a clarifying statement intended to suggest that the legislature’s review of Maryland’s transportation spending will be forward-looking, not a look back at past spending.

“Speaker Jones looks forward to reviewing all transportation projects as a part of the regular budget process during the 2020 legislative session,” Hughes wrote.