Interactive Training Program
The Bottom Line on Ethics - What Montgomery County Employees Need to Know
Ethics - You hear the term often, but have you thought about what it really means? Simply, ethics are principles of right and good conduct. Why does the Montgomery County government care about ethics? Because our system of representative government depends in part on the people maintaining the highest trust in their officials and employees. Citizens have a right to expect public officials and employees to be impartial and use independent judgment. The confidence and trust of the people erodes when the conduct of County business is subject to improper influence or even the appearance of improper influence. To guard against actions that would erode the public's trust, the Montgomery County Council enacted a public ethics law. This law sets standards for the conduct of County business and requires selected public employees to disclose information about their financial affairs. The Montgomery County Ethics Commission administers the law.
The purpose of this program is to summarize the Ethics Code, and give you The Bottom Line - a guide for what you need to know and do to prevent conflicts of interest and improper influence. It also gives you a chance to check your understanding of ethics issues that arise in Montgomery County. Each section includes a "Brain Teaser," scenarios related to the Ethics Law followed by some questions to get you thinking about the issues. You will be able to see how your responses match up to the Ethics Commission's.
Copies of Chapter 19A, Montgomery County Code of Ethics, are available at the Ethics Commission Office. For interpretation of the Ethics law regarding your specific circumstance, please contact the Ethics commission at (240) 777-6670.
The first set of Brain Teasers follows. For the second set (involving Advisory Opinions and Waivers) click here
I. In general, a public employee may not participate in any County activity that involves anything in which the employee holds an economic interest. This includes property, a personal business, or any business in which a relative of the employee holds an economic interest.
Brainteaser 1: Dave is a County employee. His brother owns a security firm that bid on the contract to provide security for the County Fair. Can Dave be involved in any part of the contracting process?
Brainteaser 2: Robert is a member of the County Park and Planning Commission, with a responsibility for making decisions about the County's Historic Master Plan. Several communities are under consideration for historic designation, including the neighborhood in which Robert owns a home. Can Robert participate in the decision-making process for the Historic Master Plan in his neighborhood?
(Code Reference: Sections 19A-12, 19A-14)
II. Holding employment outside of your County job could pose a conflict of interest as well. For this reason, the Ethics Commission must approve all outside employment, including self-employment. Even for approved outside employment, you may not use County equipment, facilities or time for that work.
Brainteaser 3: The Ethics Commission has approved outside employment for Celia to work as a sales associate for a cosmetics company. She regularly hands out catalogues to fellow employees, and often stops by to take orders or answer questions during her County work hours. She also spends considerable time sorting and distributing products to her fellow employees. Sometimes she uses her lunchtime for this work, but she often conducts this business during regular work time. Does Celia's conduct pose an ethics violation?
Brainteaser 4: Nancy has obtained a real estate license and has received approval from the Ethics Commission to become self-employed as a real estate agent outside of her County job. Nancy's home copier has broken down and she has to get fliers out about an upcoming open house. Can Nancy use her lunch break to copy fliers on her department's copier?
Post County Employment
(Code reference: Section 19A-13)
III. To avoid conflicts of interest, the Ethics Law imposes restrictions upon future employment of County employees in certain situations. Upon leaving County employment, a former employee must wait one (1) year before accepting employment with any person or business that contracts or does business with a County agency, if the employee participated during the previous 3 years: in regulating the person or business in any procurement or other contractual activity concerning a contract with the person or business. Significant participation includes making a decision or recommendation, giving approval or disapproval, rendering advice, investigating, or taking a similar action as an officer or employee. Also, a former County employee must not assist any party (including a new employer) with any matter, such as a case or contract, for ten (10) years after the last date the employee significantly participated in the matter in a public capacity.
Brainteaser 5: Anne, a former County Council staff member, managed the budget and contract oversight for the County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). She left County employment two years ago to complete a degree in Social Work. She would like to accept a job with a private mental health organization that has a contract with the County for providing counseling to County prisoners. She will not be assigned any cases related to Montgomery County, including any of the DHHS contract work. Can Anne accept the job?
Soliciting or Accepting Gifts
(Code Reference: Section 19A-16)
IV. Soliciting or accepting gifts is another major component of conflict of interest. Public employees may not solicit or accept a gift, especially with the intent of affecting or offering to affect any action by a County agency. Meals valued under $50 are acceptable, and there are other specific exceptions. County employees may accept reimbursement for expenses associated with attending seminars or conferences directly related to their profession. In addition, a County employee may accept achievement awards conferred by professional societies for excellence in a particular field.
Brainteaser 6: A County contractor works closely with the 10-person staff of the County permit office. In appreciation for their work, the contractor brought a holiday fruit basket to the office for the staff to share. The basket is valued at $150. Can the office staff share the basket?
Brainteaser 7: Dan works on the County's telecommunications contracts. A contractor that Dan has worked with for some time offers Dan free tickets to a Washington Redskins game in the contractor's private box at the stadium. The tickets and meals are valued at $250. Can Dan accept the gift?
Penalties(Code reference: Sections 19A-28 through 19A-32)
The penalties for breaking the ethics law may be severe. You could lose your job, have your pay suspended or garnished, receive a public reprimand, be fined up to $1000, or be jailed.
The Bottom LineIf your instincts make you think twice before doing something, assume that it presents a conflict of interest, and don't do it until you ask the Ethics Commission.
The next time you are faced with an ethical crisis, ask yourself the following questions:
If you believe a violation has occurred, it is your responsibility and obligation to contact the Ethics Commission. You will be treated with respect, and your conversation will be held in confidence. If you wish to submit a complaint, you must do so within two years of the date the alleged violation occurred. Creating and maintaining the highest ethical standards in Montgomery County is a shared responsibility. That means we're all in this together. We are counting on you to do your part.