New Cecil County Ethics Code Could Alter Political Landscape [Cecil Times News Analysis]
An advisory panel has drafted an overhaul of the Cecil County ethics code that could significantly alter the local political candidate landscape, including requirements for candidates and elected officials to disclose their in-laws financial dealings.
Mike Burns, the current chairman of the county Ethics Commission and [CORRECTION: an accountant], presented the draft proposal to the County Commissioners at their Tuesday 5/17/11 worksession. Burns, a Democrat, and a bipartisan panel worked to draft the update in 2009 but had to revisit the plan last year after a new state law mandated certain revised provisions and standards.
Burns outlined the scope of the new ethics code, along with voluminous background information, including correspondence with state ethics officials who must review a local plan to make sure it complies with the state-mandated standards.
But the newly proposed Cecil County plan goes beyond the state mandates and includes some uniquely Cecil-centric proposals, including the requirement to disclose financial information about in-laws and dependent relatives and their spouses even if they have no business dealings with county government.
Some of the proposals seem to be fall-out of ethics concerns raised about former county Commissioner Brian Lockhart. Lockhart’s father-in-law, Barry Montgomery, is a well-known developer in the county. Although current county law did not require disclosure of his in-laws businesses, Lockhart routinely recused himself from votes relating to Montgomery’s business interests.
Indeed, Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4) obliquely referenced Lockhart during the worksession. Lockhart was accused of ethical misconduct relating to his discussion of, but not voting upon, issues involving a housing development that was financed by Cecil Bank, where Lockhart was a board member. But he had failed to disclose his bank ties on his county ethics form even though it was widely known in the county.
The new proposal addresses several shortcomings in current law and reflects a good-faith effort to correct them, as well as comply with new state mandates. But the proposal could have some political unintended consequences.
In practical political terms, the proposed code could influence who runs for elected office in the county, due to new disclosure rules that would require exposure of extended family members’ financial information and investment partners with no connection to county business and other provisions. The rules would apply to candidates, as well as already-elected public officials. In the past, disclosures focused on potential conflicts of interest with county business, but the new rules would require disclosure of “all assets,” Burns said, even if there is no evident tie to county business.
The proposals could tend to encourage candidacy by people without businesses or investment partnerships (and who have relatives in a similar position) and might also favor very wealthy candidates who have cashed out of past business interests but now have bank or stock accounts and trusts that would be shielded from exposure under the proposals.
In terms of the local political landscape, the new ethics rules would seem to favor a candidate like Michael W. Dawson, a technician for Verizon with no business interests who ran as a Constitution Party candidate last year, or Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-36), a former junk bond trader in New York who cashed out much of his business profits years ago.
The new rules could tend to discourage business owners or people with LLC’s, which are normally shielded under state law from disclosure of all involved investors in the limited liability company, or real estate investment partnerships.
The proposals also create some potential marital issues, such as whether spousal privilege would apply if a wife told her candidate-husband that her father owned a certain business but the father/father-in-law refused to state his business interests in public.
(That could create quite a family scene at the Thanksgiving dinner table…)
Burns told the county Commissioners the draft plan “expanded the definition of family members” and requires “much more detailed” financial information, including disclosure of all real estate, business and investment property “regardless of whether such businesses or properties have anything to do with the county’s business.”
The new state mandates require disclosure of financial ties with spouses, children or siblings, Burns said, but his proposal would also apply to in-laws, dependent relatives and their spouses.
Theoretically, that mandate would cover your ne’er-do-well brother-in-law who lives in your basement and his wife he hasn’t talked to in years.
Under current ethics disclosures, elected Commissioners only had to disclose business interests that might be involved in county oversight matters. But the new rules would require disclosure of any and all business interests, including financial holdings of business partners or investors in a candidate or Commissioner’s business operations.
Recently, the Cecil Times obtained financial disclosures filed by the current county commissioners. All members complied with the bare bones requirements, while Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5) voluntarily disclosed much more than was required. He listed all his businesses and noted that two properties he owns—two trailer parks—have county operating licenses.
In contrast, Commissioner James Mullin (R-1) listed no business holdings, although he owns and operates a real estate appraisal business—Mullin Appraisal, based in Delaware—that has been a political donor in many local election campaigns. Under current law, he did not have to list that business if it has no business relationship with county government or properties dealing with county planning or related agencies. But under the new ethics rules, he would have to list his business ownership even if it had no dealings with the county.
Overall, the new ethics proposal strives to ensure accountability and tightens past loopholes. But in terms of its extended family disclosure rules and business ties reports, the new rules could inhibit the depth of experience that potential political candidates will have since many successful business people are hesitant to expose their personal, family and business associates’ financial information.
The new ethics proposal will be reviewed by the County Commissioners and a final plan presented at a public hearing before adoption. It will also be subject to review and approval by state ethics officials.