In recent weeks, I read about the reprimand of Delegate Dan Morhaim of Baltimore County for ethical misjudgment.
Then, I read about bribery charges brought against former Delegate Michael Vaughn of Prince George’s for actions during his stint in the Maryland General Assembly.
And, of course, I constantly read about ethics concerns raised about President Trump and his business interests.
And, as a former deputy treasurer for Maryland, I recoil with disgust. I question the behavior by some to the obligations of public service. I wonder why good people do stupid things. Just human nature? I guess those two words cover a wide range of misdeeds.
While I certainly don’t ascribe to the frequent refrain that politicians are just crooks—in fact, the comment is patently untrue—I do understand why this conclusion may seem apt in light of disturbing headlines.
I will focus my ire at Del. Morhaim, whom I knew as a serious, conscientious legislator and one of the few medical doctors in the Maryland General Assembly. I worked with him a bit on procurement matters, which typically were remarkable for their dryness and lack of attention paid them by most legislators.
So what did Morhaim do that drew a reprimand by the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics? While promoting legislation and then regulations concerning the medical use of marijuana, he signed a consulting contract with one of the vendors seeking a license to sell cannabis in Maryland. He failed to disclose his consulting contract to the very commission responsible for establishing regulations for a new statewide industry.
The ethics committee’s wording, though cumbersome, stated that “his belief that he could keep his role as a legislator, advocating for the implementation of policy and regulations for the use of medical cannabis, separate from his position as a paid consultant for a company seeking to entire the medical cannabis business, reflects poor judgment to the detriment of the broader interests of the public and other government officials who work with legislators, bringing disrepute and dishonor to the General Assembly.”
Morhaim issued a three-page apology. His defense was that while he followed the letter, he failed to follow the spirit of the law He wrote, “I did not recognize the public perception that might be associated by my speaking before the Cannabis Commission on regulatory issues, even if they were detrimental to my client’s interests. For this, I apologize.”
I find his comment lame and unsettling.
What bothers me is Del. Morhaim’s belated recognition that perception is reality, particularly in politics. The appearance of an ethical transgression or poor judgment can be just as destructive as the act itself. That’s a well-known fact.
In my opinion, the responsibility to develop and retain the public’s trust in the conduct of public business supersedes all else. You lose that trust; you lose the opportunity to be an effective public servant. You operate under a cloud. Your peers know if you are ethically flawed. Your constituents eventually discover your fallibility and choose to entrust someone else with their faith.
What bothers me also is the willingness of a public official to delegate common sense to the ethics counsel. Yes, I fully understand that the ethics office exists to counsel and advise. But it shouldn’t provide a cover for questionable behavior. I believe that responsible legislators, whether on the local or state or federal level, instinctively know or sense when an action or decision bumps up against acceptable and trustworthy behavior.
My dictum as a public servant: if in doubt, don’t.
A caveat is necessary. Citizen-legislators as we have in Maryland, as opposed to their full time contemporaries in Congress, face frequent conflicts and conundrums. As a citizen-doctor, Morhaim had pushed hard for 15 years for the medical use of marijuana. He believed in its need, as do others.
Delegate Morhaim, however, crossed the line. He besmirched his excellent reputation. He damaged his credibility.
Further, he propagated an unfair but prevalent image of public officials. Democracy suffers when the public believes the worst.
Perception is a tough, unrelenting judge.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.