Oliver Vote Raises Ethics Question
Councilman voted on an issue relating to the Department of Business and Economic Development but didn't abstain or disclose that he worked for the state agency.
Oliver and his six council colleagues voted March 7 to approve a resolution calling on the state Department of Business and Economic Development to approve the creation of a state enterprise zone in Woodlawn. The vote was taken just weeks after Oliver began a job as a financial analyst with the same agency.
The county's ethics code states that a public official "may not participate in any matter involving the county if" it involves a business entity the employs the official. Some council members and an ethics expert said that Oliver should have abstained from the vote.
The potential conflict was discovered during a review by Patch of County Council votes taken between Feb. 16 and Oct. 21, the period of time that includes Oliver's DBED employment.
The resolution, which the council approved unanimously, expresses the council's support for the creation of a state enterprise zone for a business park in Woodlawn—which is currently in Oliver's district.
The Department of Business and Econmic Development would be responsible for designating the area which then allows businesses to take advantage of property tax credits for improving property and income tax credits for new hires.
It is not clear what duties Oliver had while working for the agency. An agency spokeswoman was not immediately able to disclose what projects the councilman worked on while employed by the department.
Five of the remaining six council members interviewed by Patch last week said they did not know that Oliver was employed, much less employed by a state agency.
Oliver, a Democrat, declined to discuss the issue following a council work session Tuesday.
"I have no comment," Oliver said.
Oliver was hired as a contract employee by the state agency in mid-February at an annual salary of nearly $63,000. The County Charter prohibits council members from holding state government jobs during their terms in office.
Oliver was one of three council members who attempted to change that charter rule in 2008. County voters ultimately rejected the change.
Oliver, who promised to resign from his state job last week after Patch reported it, earned more than $45,000 during his nine months with DBED. A spokeswoman for the agency said the state would not seek reimbursement. County officials said the charter did not provide a way to enforce the employment prohibition and that they also may not be able to force any repayment.
News of the March vote troubled some council members and an ethics watchdog group.
Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr. said he could not remember the specific issue voted on or say if Oliver had committed a specific ethics violation.
"I don't know," Olszewski said, adding, "If that was me, I would have recused myself."
Olszewski, a Democrat, has in the past abstained from voting on certain issues that relate to either his employment or his service on certain nonprofit boards.
Republican former Councilman Wayne Skinner, who worked for the state Department of Assessment and Taxation, abstained on every vote related to applications for property tax exemptions during his four years in office.
Susan Wichmann, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said Oliver's vote "doesn't pass the smell test."
"If your voting on a piece of legislation and it has your employer's name on it then it certainly has the appearance of a conflict of interest," Wichmann said.
Wichmann said well-defined ethics laws would help.
"There's not a clear line and we believe that a clear line needs to be drawn," Wichmann said, adding that clearer rules would benefit sitting elected officials.
"It's also important for elected officials to hold their colleagues accountable," said Wichmann.
County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is scheduled to hold a news conference Wednesday morning to announce proposed changes to the county ethics laws related to conflicts of interest and financial disclosures. He is also expected to issue an executive order outlining a new code of ethical conduct for county employees.
That executive order would not likely apply to the council because they are a separate branch of government.