From Delegate Smigiel’s Blog: Cecil County Ethics Board Accused of Unethical Intimidation of Those filing Ethics Complaints

From the Official Blog of Delegate Mike Smigiel ——

The County recently added a section to the form that a complaintant is required to fill out. The new language notifys the complaining party that they are prohibited from telling anyone else about the ethics complaint they had filed. The penalty for telling someone you filed an ethics complaint can be up to a year in jail and $5,000 fine.   The basis for the information being put on the form is Cecil County Code Section 166-6C.

The public policy in having ethics boards, is to encourage citizens to come forward and report perceived conflicts of interest or unethical behavoir of government officials.  Threatening citizens with the possibility of jail and a large fine for coming forward and later telling someone about their having filed a complaint  is certainly counter productive to the public policy  goal of encouraging  the public to participate in such public discourse.

The Attorney General’s office was asked to review this Cecil County policy and issued a letter stating they agreed that Cecil County can not enforce a criminal sanction against someone who violates this Cecil County Code Provision. 

Article Continues on Delegate Smigiel’s Blog

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6 responses to “From Delegate Smigiel’s Blog: Cecil County Ethics Board Accused of Unethical Intimidation of Those filing Ethics Complaints

  1. Michael Burns

    FROM THE CHAIRMAN OF THE CECIL COUNTY ETHICS COMMISSION:

    Del. Smigiel’s blog is the first I’ve heard of this. I’ve asked Del. Smigiel to send me the document in question (the one sent to the A.G.’s office). Absent an oversight on our part, we have no policy of including this provision of the County code in correspondence to our complainants.

    I will respond further once I’ve had a chance to examine said letter(s).

    Michael Burns, Chair
    Cecil County Ethics Comm.

  2. Chairman Burns:

    Thanks for posting on Someone Noticed. We’ll look forward to an update on this matter once you examine the forms.

  3. Michael Burns, Chair

    July 24, 2009

    From: Michael Burns, Chair,
    Cecil County Ethics Comm.

    To: All interested parties:

    1. I was first made aware of Del. Smigiel’s blog Monday, 7/20, to which I immediately called him and asked him to send me the purported documents he based his accusations on, to which he consented. To date I have received nothing. It seems unfair to have to answer unsupported accusations; nevertheless I will address his article as follows:

    2. “The County recently added a section to the form that a complaintant {sic} is required to fill out. The new language notifys {sic} the complaining party that they are prohibited from telling anyone else about the ethics complaint they had filed. The penalty for telling someone you filed an ethics complaint can be up to a year in jail and $5,000 fine. The basis for the information being put on the form is Cecil County Code Section 166-6C.”

    One of our attorneys on the Ethics Comm. suggested we add §166-6D, verbatim, to our correspondence with complainants:

    All orders, reprimands and recommendations issued by the Commission shall be signed by those members of the Commission taking part therein and in agreement therewith. If there is a majority, concurring or dissenting action taken, those members in agreement with the particular action taken shall sign such action. Notwithstanding any other provision of the law to the contrary, upon the filing of a complaint, and unless and until the matter is referred for criminal prosecution or a finding of violation has been made, the proceedings, meetings and activities of the Commission and its employees in connection with the complaint shall be conducted in a confidential manner. The Commission, its staff, counsel, the complainant and the respondent shall not disclose any information relating to the complaint, including the identity of the complainant and the respondent, except that the Commission may release any information at any time if the respondent has, in writing, agreed to said release. The identity of the complainant shall be disclosed to the respondent, at the request of the respondent, at any time. {Cecil County Code, §166-6D.}

    Since it is the law, I had no objections. We did not include §166-C (below), which mentions fines and penalties. (I too had some concerns about the likelihood and practicality of this being enforced.)

    Violation of any provisions of this chapter shall be a misdemeanor subject to a fine of up to $5,000 or to imprisonment for up to one year. {Cecil County Code, §166-6C.}

    I reviewed Ms. Jackson’s file. I found no document which includes §166-C, only §166-6D as mentioned above.

    3. “The Attorney General’s office was asked to review this Cecil County policy and issued a letter stating they agreed that Cecil County can not enforce a criminal sanction against someone who violates this Cecil County Code Provision.”

    It seems odd the Attorney General’s office would rule on such a matter without contacting us. I asked Del. Smigiel to produce the letter from which he’s making such allegation.

    Secondly, if the A.G. truly issued such a ruling, I must ask the Commissioners to change or delete §166-C. We didn’t write the law; we are charged with enforcing it.

    4. “In light of this, the Cecil County Commissioners should contact everyone who received information telling them they could face potential fines and penalties as a result of their having reported what they perceived to be unethical behavior by a public official.”

    Again, unless there’s been some oversight on my part, we’ve never done this.

    5. “Citizens have a right to complain that they believe the activities of local elected officials to be unethical conflicts of interest or that the public official is unethical because they don’t pay their JC Penny Credit Card bills, because they have been accused of abusing their spouses, or discovered is some other unethical or illegal behavior. A citizen can stand on the Court House Steps and yell all day long and as long as they are not violating some other law, the speech is protected for the most part. There may not be protection if the public official can show the citizen knew the matter not to be true and made the statements in public with that knowledge. It would be argued in such a case that the citizen was malicious in spreading untruths about the public official.”

    I’m all for free speech; I can only assume our code was reviewed for constitutional issues when it was written (it is required to follow the State code). If not, it should be challenged or changed by our Commissioners.

    6. “Every once in a while a constituent brings a matter to my attention that I can’t really believe.”

    Perhaps he should have trusted his instincts. Again, I’m amazed that Del. Smigiel would write this without bothering to contact me. Since he has not bothered to exercise the fundamental civility of documenting his charges, I will ask Del. Smigiel to remove the article from his blog. I also believe an apology is in order.

    Michael Burns, Chair
    Cecil County Ethics Comm.

  4. Delegate Mike Smigiel

    .Dear Michael

    After you called my office I asked my staff to put together the documents you requested. It was late in the day and the project was not completed that day. We were missing one page and had to call the constituent to obtain a copy of one of the pages which she sent the next day. I dictated a cover letter to you and told my staff to get it to you as I left for an out of County meeting. The next day (Thursday July 23,) I found the secretary had mailed the documents and cover letter to you at the Cecil County Ethics Committee address at the Cecil County Courthouse. I told her that was fine. The Commissioners had been faxed a copy of the Attorney General Opinion by the constituent, Ms. Jackson.

    You should have received a copy at the courthouse either on friday or today. I realize you work out of State but I trust that someone at the ethics office will see that you get the information I sent. This illegal language has been in the county code for several years. In addition, Ms. Jackson indicates to me that she complained to you sir, about the language when she received the opinion letter and was told the ethics committee didn’t have anything to do with it because the county code controlled. Mrs Jackson states you told her it was the idea of the attorneys on the board to add the language from the county code to the opinion letters, the implication was that the attorney’s surely looked at the law. Your signiture appears on the Opinion letter dated October 15, 2007 directly above the added, language in question, from the cecil county code. You had over 21 months to look at the document or try to get the answer for the constituent and did not do so. Therefore I think it is a little disengenuous to argue I have injured you by not getting back to you within three days of your request.

    So it is not like this issue came out of the blue, surely if the committee wanted to look at the issue they too could have sought a written legal opinion, just as I did when the constituent came to me.

    Never the less, as I wrote in my letter to you:

    “I realize you did not pass this local law, but I hope you will agree with the Attorney General’s Office that the language is unenforceable and that you will thus seek its removal from the code as it surely has a chilling
    effect on citizens coming forward with complaints. I know you to be a good man who is principled. I have not and do not place blame on you for this problem and will make that clear in my follow up. The problem is with the Attorneys involved, they should have known better.

    I thank you in advance for your attention to this matter. If my office can be of any assistance to you in this or any future matter, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

    Hopefully, you have now received the letter and attachments. I know the Commissioners have the opinion because Commissioner Hodge called Mrs. Jackson asking to meet with her to address the concerns.

    Yours in Public Service,

    Delegate Michael D. Smigiel, Sr.

  5. Harvey Cecil Co Taxpayer

    How did that ethics man for Cecil County miss all that stuff. He wasn’t helping Elkton figure out how to make their ethics dept work was he. Maybe that explains Why Joe was having such a time.

  6. Harvey thanks for stopping by to post your thoughts on Someone Noticed. On your question about Chairman Burns’ involvement with the Elkton ethics matter, I can share insight on that. Mr. Burns chairs the county committee and doesn’t have anything to do with Elkton’s board. The Mayor and Commissioners appoint a three person board to serve as the Elkton commission and he’s not involved with that. While I don’t know precisely, I doubt that they consulted with him on the matter, too.

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