With a mere flick of the pen, Maryland's Code of Ethics and its criminal penalties for conflicts of interest can be extended to the governor and other elected executive officers, according to an opinion released yesterday by Maryland Attorney General Francis B. Burch.
The code, created in 1969 to set standards of behaviour for government workers, previously applied only to nonelected executive department employees. It exempted the governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, comptroller, state's attorneys and legislators.
Burch said Maryland's governor can extend the code to himself and other top officials simply by amending the executive order that created the code and set up the Board of Ethics to investigate possible violations of ethical guidelines.
The governor also has the power to define the penalties for code violations by elected executives, Burch said, although he would need legislative approval for "stiffer sanctions," such as suspension, loss of pay or automatic legislative censure.
Acting Gov. Blair Lee III was not available for comment yesterday.
The applicability of the ethics code to the governor was an issue during last summer's corruption trial of suspended Gov. Marvin Mandel when federal prosecutors argued that Mandel's action violated the code.
In his charge to the jury, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Taylor said the code did not apply to Mandel or other elected employees of the executive branch. He said the code "may be looked to as a guide for determining the standard of conduct expected" of Maryland officials.
The General Assembly passed a law in 1968 calling on the governor to establish a code of ethics for all executive branch employees. A committee created to recommend a code decided to limit the standards to nonelected officials.
Mandel signed an executive order in 1969 promulgating the code and setting up the ethics board.
The board whose chairman requested Burch's opinion, has recently been given the power to investigate possible criminal conflicts of interest by nonelected executive branch employees. If the board believes it has found a conflict, it is supposed to report its findings to local state's attorneys.