by: Pamela Woold, firstname.lastname@example.org
Not long after Gov. Larry Hogan was sworn in as governor on a snowy day in Annapolis in 2015, the questions started: How would the owner of a real estate development firm ensure that his governing decisions wouldn’t unfairly benefit his company?
The Republican governor reached an agreement with state ethics officials to maintain ownership of the Hogan Cos. through a trust, but allowed his brother to run the business. Hogan is allowed to receive periodic updates about the business.
Hogan also filed his required annual financial disclosures and voluntarily shared copies of his tax returns when he ran for re-election in 2018, showing he made significantly more than just his $180,000 salary as governor.
But those steps offered an incomplete picture of the governor’s business maneuvers and never satisfied critics of the governor’s arrangement with his company.
Two years ago, Kevin Zeese and Craig Holman separately thought of a way to force the issue: Zeese, an official with the state’s Green Party, and Holman, a lobbyist with the watchdog group Public Citizen, filed complaints with the Maryland State Ethics Commission.
They asked the ethics commission to determine whether Hogan in fact used the state budget process to benefit his private company in violation of state ethics laws.
The complaint focused on whether Hogan budgeted state tax dollars for highway projects near properties owned by the Hogan Cos., particularly an interchange in Brandywine in Prince George’s County. The interchange had been on the books as a potential project for years but was advanced to the construction stage in Hogan’s very first budget.
More than two years after the complaints were filed, it’s not clear what — if anything — happened to them. The five-member appointed ethics commission is bound by strict confidentiality rules that limit what can be reported publicly. Even the governor doesn’t have a definitive answer.
Because the ethics commission operates largely in a confidential manner, it’s impossible for the public to determine whether the commission is doing its job in holding elected and appointed government officials accountable for misdeeds in office.
That has left Holman fuming about the process and questioning whether the ethics complaint process is effective. Zeese, meanwhile, died while apparently waiting for an answer.
“Who holds the ethics commission accountable, especially after two years with no movement, and the conditions that prompted the complaint have only multiplied and gotten worse?” asked Owen Silverman Andrews, a Baltimore Green Party official who had strategized with Zeese on the complaint.
Andrews thinks Hogan has clearly made an ethical transgression: “He’s scratching his own back. He’s using his unilateral power of the budget and transportation policy to direct money to parts of the state where his company run by his brother has property.”
But Andrews and others with the Green Party aren’t sure what happened with their colleague’s complaint. Did it die with Zeese when he suffered a fatal heart attack in September 2020?
“We know it got filed, and we have no way of knowing how it got resolved,” said Andy Ellis, a member of the Baltimore Green Party’s steering committee.
As for Holman, after getting an initial response that his complaint had been received, he said he hasn’t heard a peep from the ethics commission because their process is kept confidential.
“Absolutely nothing has happened, and it’s very frustrating,” Holman said.
He acknowledged that the complaints had unfortunate timing: They were filed in February 2020, just after a Washington Monthly article revived discussion about Hogan’s business dealings. A month later the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Maryland.
“I presume they dropped it on their own without dealing with the issue, and because of the pandemic they probably thought they can get away with it,” Holman said.
Larry Ottinger, who helped compile a website plotting Hogan properties and highway projects on a map, “Hogan’s Real Estate Racket,” said Maryland badly needs more transparency so citizens can understand how government officials ― including the governor ― are making decisions.
“It’s just a really concerning area,” said Ottinger, president of Our Maryland. “The fact that we can’t find out what goes on, that Public Citizen ― a national watchdog — can file a complaint and the public doesn’t get any information about it, is a real concern.”
Though Our Maryland is a progressive group, Ottinger said concerns about conflicts of interest cut across party lines and sow distrust in government. Maryland, after all, has a long history of political corruption, from Republican Vice President Spiro Agnew to the former Democratic mayor of Baltimore Catherine Pugh.
“This is a central issue, the public trust and fighting against corruption and holding our officials accountable,” Ottinger said.
Hogan — who is considering a run for higher office after his second term as governor ends in January — seems unconcerned about the ethics complaints. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and alleged the complaints were more about partisan politics than enforcing ethical standards.
“We are confident that if the commission had found something, it would have said something,” Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci wrote in a statement in response to questions from The Baltimore Banner. “No sense of limbo is felt here.”
Further, he added: “We have the utmost respect for the state Ethics Commission’s process and protocols.”
The Maryland State Ethics Commission’s operations are governed by a state law that runs nearly 150 pages. The commission oversees lobbyists and state executive branch employees and collects financial disclosures from state elected officials. The commission’s work runs the gamut of signing off on part-time jobs for state employees to checking that lobbyists are properly registered to investigating potential conflict-of-interest issues like the ones raised regarding Hogan’s business.
The commission also offers guidance to officials who might step into unclear ethical waters, and it fines lobbyists and officials who don’t file their disclosure forms on time.
Of the five members of the commission, three are appointed by the governor, one by the president of the state Senate and one by the House of Delegates. All serve up to two five-year terms and are confirmed by the state Senate.
Complaints alleging violations of the ethics law are not made public or discussed publicly.
Jennifer Allgair, executive director of the ethics commission, said neither she nor the ethics commissioners would be able to discuss any complaints. The commission won’t confirm the existence of complaints about the governor.
“We’re following the provisions of the public ethics law,” she said.
The only reason the complaints against Hogan are known is that Public Citizen and the Green Party posted them online themselves and discussed them publicly.
The state ethics law prohibits the ethics commissioners and staff, those who file complaints and the subjects of complaints from discussing them publicly.
The only times that complaints are made public are when the commission determines an official violated the ethics law, or the official signs an agreement acknowledging a violation. Violations and settlement agreements are posted online.
Each year, the commission receives dozens of reports of potential ethics violations. Some of them are formal complaints like those filed by Public Citizen and the Green Party. More often, the commission receives tips through phone calls, emails and public discussion, including news reports. About half usually involve potential conflicts of interest.
Many of those tips — known as “matters” in ethics commission parlance — are given a preliminary review but don’t advance further.
Some matters are advanced to a full investigation by the commission and its staff. If the commission determines that an ethical violation likely occurred, the commission will issue its own formal complaint. The individual accused of ethical wrongdoing then has an opportunity to respond to the complaint, and a formal hearing can be held.
Complaints — whether filed by members of the public or generated by the commission — can be closed in multiple ways, including finding that no violation occurred, reaching a settlement agreement with the person being investigated or finding that the person did violate ethics laws.
In 2021, for example, the commission did not issue any of its own formal complaints and no complaints were closed, according to the annual report. But in prior years, the commission was more active, with 22 complaints issued in 2020 — most related to issues with financial disclosure requirements.
When ethics commissioners meet to discuss pending matters, they do so in closed sessions.
Those who asked for an investigation into the governor are left at a loss to know what happened. Without any announced finding of an ethical violation, the complaint could still be under investigation or it could have been dismissed. Ellis acknowledged that officials may be reasonably concerned about publicizing details of complaints that end up being unfounded. But the best way to know whether complaints are legitimate is for there to be more disclosure, he said.
“We know it got filed, and we have no way of knowing how it got solved,” said Ellis of the Baltimore Green Party.
“This is a ridiculous institution that operates entirely in secret with no record and is not accountable to anybody,” he said.
Del. Vaughn Stewart has repeatedly tried to push for more scrutiny of Hogan’s actions, especially when it comes to decisions that might benefit the Hogan Cos. real estate business.
He, too, is troubled by not hearing any resolution to the complaints against the governor for more than two years.
“Even the most ardent fan of the governor or his most vociferous opponent would probably agree that ethics complaints against elected officials should be resolved in a more timely way than two years,” said Stewart, a Democrat from Montgomery County.
In 2021, Stewart succeeded in passing a law that requires statewide officials — including the governor — to offer more details about business entanglements that could cross with official decisions.
And he came up with a plan to send more money to the ethics commission, which has a staff of just 12 employees to manage its varied programs. He proposed tripling the annual registration fee for state lobbyists from $100 to $300.
The extra money, about $340,000 to $480,000 per year, would have gone to the ethics commission. The commission’s current budget is a little more than $1.3 million, making a few hundred thousand dollars a significant increase.
“I think it’s absolutely problematic that a major ethics investigation would take as long as two years,” Stewart said. “If we wanted to dramatically expand the funding for the state ethics commission, we could. … I think it would expand their capacity to perform all their duties, including their investigatory ones.”
The bill ended up failing, and Stewart didn’t bring it back during the 2022 legislative session.