Luxury boxes at major sporting events. Sold-out concerts. Galas. Vegas shows.
Baltimore's lawmakers often receive tickets for shows and other popular events from developers, business people, corporations and nonprofits as one of the perks of office. Over three years, elected officials in City Hall reported getting more than 170 tickets worth more than $15,000, according to the most recent filings available.
City Hall has strengthened ethics laws after Mayor Sheila Dixon pleaded guilty to perjury charges two years ago and agreed to resign after failing to disclose gifts from a developer boyfriend. Still, lawmakers are allowed to accept gifts under certain circumstances, so long as they are annually divulged on publicly available forms.
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But the law that governs such gifts is complex, and City Hall officials have different views of what they can legally accept and what they should report on their ethics forms, a Baltimore Sun investigation found.
Moreover, the disclosure forms are rarely reviewed by the office that collects them. There has not been a comprehensive review of the forms in at least eight years, according to the former chairwoman of the city's ethics board.
"The whole thing is a dysfunctional system," said Fred Guy, director of the University of Baltimore's Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics, who also has advised MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blake's staff. "The whole thing is ineffectual and not taken seriously."
And the gifts of tickets show a too-cozy relationship between business leaders and politicians, Guy said.
"The public is really sick and tired of conflicts of interest and double standards on the part of elected officials," he said. "It's almost a self-deception. [Officials] convince themselves there's nothing wrong."
Baltimore's ethics law generally prohibits elected officials from receiving gifts from anyone who does business with the public servant's agency, but it makes an exception for tickets to charitable, cultural, sporting or political events — if the ticket is given by the event sponsor. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, for instance, can give tickets to shows as an event sponsor.
In September, the City Council eliminated part of that exception from the law — after a state law required more stringent local rules — making it illegal to accept tickets to sporting events from anyone who does business with a city official's agency, regardless of sponsorship.
Failure to properly fill out ethics forms can carry stiff sanctions, including criminal penalties such as those levied against Dixon. Employees can be fined $250 for failing to submit the forms.
But there is wide disparity in how top city officials fill out the forms.
Consider, for instance, a Jan. 7, 2009, trip taken by City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, Council Vice President Edward Reisinger and Councilman William H. "Bill" Cole IV to Newark to watch a New Jersey Devils hockey game with developer Jerome Gottesman, chairman of Edison Properties. Gottesman was trying to pitch the council members on Baltimore's need for a new arena, the councilmen say.
Cole reported the hockey game ticket as a gift but also reported that he paid for it by check. Young also reported the ticket, though he didn't indicate who had given him the gift. Asked by The Sun recently, Young said he paid for the ticket in cash. And Reisinger didn't report the ticket as a gift. He said recently that he didn't think he was required to do so.
Nearly three-fourths of the members of the City Council did not list receiving a single gift from a person doing business with the city over the three years.
Some city officials complain of confusion about which gift-givers are prohibited because they do business with the city.
Young and Rawlings-Blake reported receiving tickets to a Ravens game in 2008 from MedStar Health, which owns five hospitals in Maryland, including Good Samaritan in the city. Rawlings-Blake, who was City Council president then, said the city's ethics adviser Avery Aisenstark told her office that the gifts were allowed because MedStar Health did not qualify as an entity that does business with the city.
But a database of checks paid by the city, obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request, shows that MedStar Transportation, a division of MedStar Health, received about $13,000 in payments that year.
Young said he received oral approval to attend from the city's ethics adviser, who declines to discuss specific cases. Young's spokesman, Lester Davis, said there are many confusing aspects to the city's enforcement of ethics rules and reporting requirements on disclosure forms. He also said that determining when an entity has done business with the city can be difficult.
"There's this overarching issue of it not being clear who is doing business with the city on a year-to-year basis," Davis said.