ARLENE VIOLET – Ethics panel right to fine McKee

ARLENE VIOLET – Ethics panel right to fine McKee

On May 21, 2019, the Ethics Commission issued an informal resolution and settlement by imposing a civil fine of $250 on Lt. Gov. and former Cumberland Mayor Daniel McKee. The fine itself was a slap on the wrist. McKee not only omitted his $3,500 trip to Taiwan in 2017 on his Ethics Disclosure form but also omitted two other 2017 trips, i.e. to San Diego and Philadelphia, paid by outside entities. He received no penalty for these omissions under the settlement. Nonetheless, according to Mr. McKee, he was told by Ethics Chair Ross Cheit that even if you correct an error, it is still a violation of the ethics code. While the lieutenant governor jawboned unfavorably about this interpretation, he is dead wrong. Cheit and the commission finally have gotten it right.

Putting aside a moment the so-called inadvertent mistake of omitting three trips on a disclosure form during an election year (forms were due in 2018), I think that the commission must insist on accurate disclosure to prevent such a cat and mouse game of “hiding the acorn under the cup” until an election is over. More importantly, any other interpretation encourages public officials to hide “bennies” given to them on the hope and expectation that the failure to disclose them may never be discovered. In the case of McKee, his failure was only discovered because he went on a repeat trip to Taiwan along with a couple of public figures who had disclosed the earlier venture.

To adopt the stance taken by the McKee, i.e. that there is no incentive to correct an unintentional error by such an interpretation would, in effect, precipitate a waiting game. Once caught, the politician would get a “pass” by amending his/her form after discovery but before the hearing. In fact, McKee amended his disclosure form after his trip became public and a Republican operative announced that he was going to file a complaint on the day before the instant complaint was filed.

The lieutenant governor went on to state to the media that Mr. Cheit’s interpretation would lead to many politically motivated complaints being filed. So what! The onus is on the public person to do the right thing. Who else but a political opponent pays attention to such matters? When I ran for attorney general my opponent’s campaign scoured for any “nugget” to deter my election and vice versa. That’s what the public expects and relies on.

In any event, even if a mistake were to happen, he/she shouldn’t be in office if they can’t remember benefits conferred on them during the year. Further, it is nothing but speculation to assume any fine, even a nominal one, were a candidate or public official to correct the record before it was flushed out. Commission members aren’t stupid. They have the ability to separate the chaff from the wheat.

This position of insisting on accurate filings is a small step. Now, if only the Ethics Commission would join the majority of states by posting the disclosure forms online. Mr. Cheit balked but after the governor and Mayor Allan Fung rebuked him and House Speaker Nick Mattiello introduced legislation requiring the posting, he relented. So, post the disclosures, already!

Violet is an attorney and former state attorney general.