Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and some County Council members accepted thousands of dollars' worth of tickets to sporting events from developers and others last year, a practice the county has continued to allow in violation of state ethics standards.
The county overhauled its ethics law late last year under legislation introduced by Kamenetz but did not bar elected officials from taking sports tickets from people who do business with the county. The State Ethics Commission decided in February that the county's reform effort had fallen short.
Financial disclosures covering 2011 and due this week show that county officials received dozens of tickets to Ravens football and Orioles baseball games. Kamenetz reported receiving 20 Ravens tickets last year, worth a total of $2,600. Many of the tickets were for his wife, Jill, according to Kamenetz's disclosure form. They came from donors including developers Steven Sibel of Caves Valley Partners and Merritt Properties.
A note on his form says: "Effort is made to list all gifts received, regardless of value or whether gift disclosure is actually required to be disclosed by law." The county executive reported a number of smaller gifts, such as $10 worth of weight loss powder from Medifast, a $25 drill from Stanley Black & Decker, and $15 worth of "tomato salsa products" from Shop Rite Timonium.
Ethics laws in most local jurisdictions and on the state level ban such gifts to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest. Such gifts cause citizens to "start to question the undue influence of the people who are giving those tickets," said Susan Wichmann of the government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland.
"We believe that the state law's the proper law and that Baltimore County obviously needs to comply with that state law," she said. "Baltimore County made the choice when they did their ethics law to not follow the standard."
Of the County Council members, Councilwoman Cathy Bevins reported receiving the most sports tickets. She got $1,035 worth of tickets from donors including Sibel, shopping-center developer Michael Klein, land-use attorney John Gontrum of the firm Whiteford Taylor & Preston, and St. John Properties.
Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, said she has turned down sports tickets since the county learned that it would have to ban them to comply with state rules.
"I don't think I've abused anything," she said.
The county's new ethics legislation was meant to bring it into compliance with a 2010 state law that requires local governments to have ethics laws that are at least as strict as those state lawmakers must follow. Under state law, officials cannot take gifts from people who do business with their agencies or whose activities are regulated by them.
In addition to allowing officials to accept sports tickets, the county law didn't comply with state rules on disclosing the receipt of other types of tickets and free meals, the ethics commission said in February.
Kamenetz' chief of staff, Don Mohler, said that the county plans to revise its law to meet state requirements "in the near future." He declined to comment on the gifts Kamenetz received.
"Obviously in Baltimore County, we're committed to the transparency of the financial disclosure process," Mohler said, pointing out that the new county ethics law will require elected officials' forms to be posted online, among other changes.
The records, which include information such as officials' real estate and business holdings, had not yet been posted early Tuesday evening, but Mohler said officials were working to do so.
Though all but two council members reported gift tickets from people doing business with the county, many said they would not accept them now that they know it is against state requirements. The forms cover January through December of last year.
"It was a nice treat for members of my family and myself, but it isn't something that I'm going to totally miss," Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond said. "I'll be OK with it."
Almond reported receiving $732 worth of sports tickets from Arthur Adler of Caves Valley Partners. The Reisterstown Democrat said that the tickets were for two football games and a baseball game, and that her family went along.
"It isn't something that I've overused or taken advantage of," Almond said.
Councilman John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat, received a Ravens ticket worth $135 from Sibel. In October, he also went on a $100 fishing trip paid for by St. John Properties, according to his disclosure.
Olszewski said he is careful about reporting his gifts and that he does not consider them an attempt at buying influence. He said the fishing trip was on the Eastern Shore.
Councilman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, also went on the fishing trip, according to Quirk's disclosure. In addition, Quirk received two Ravens tickets worth $220 from Adler.
"If it was excessive, it could be a potential conflict of interest, but most of these things are just building relationships with people," Quirk said. "I think it's important for council members to develop working relationships with as many people as they can because I think it can help their district."
Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, reported getting two tickets worth $150 to an Orioles game from Gontrum. He said that since the county changed its ethics laws, he has stopped taking tickets to sporting events outside his district.