Howard County Executive Calvin Ball paid four county employees more than $101,000 to do consulting work for his re-election campaign with more than 50 percent of that money going to his sister-in-law in a position that some say violated the county law.
Jamila Ratliff (Ball’s sister-in-law) was until recently responsible for handling Public Information Act (PIA) requests related to the county executive’s office. She is now the chair of Ball’s re-election campaign. Ratliff served as his executive liaison from Dec. 2019 to Feb. 2022. The reason for her departure is not known.
Former Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, a Republican whom Ball narrowly defeated in 2018 and who is this year challenging the incumbent’s re-election, said he does not see anything wrong in-and-of-itself with Ball hiring his sister-in-law for a position in his administration, but that having her handle PIA requests while at the same time drawing a consulting fee, is probably an inherent conflict of interest.
“The Howard County ethics law (Title 22, subtitle 2) says that if you are a county employee you cannot accept employment outside of the county if that employment would create a conflict of interest or even an appearance of a conflict of interest. There is no question that there is an appearance. And I think that it is an actual conflict of interest.”
Who got paid?
Ratliff, Deputy Chief of Staff Jennifer Jones, social media manager Safa Hira, and Scheduler and Executive Assistant Vanessa Halpin each drew consulting fees, according to campaign finance records. Jones, Hira, and Halpin are still believed to be employed by the county.
According to campaign records, the four employees were paid $101,284.67:
- Ratliff was paid $54,584.28 from Jan. 10, 2019 to Jan. 12, 2022
- Jones was paid $12,750 from Jan. 10, 2019 to Jan. 12, 2022
- Hira was paid $27,450.39 from Jan. 10, 2019 to Jan. 12, 2022
- Halpin was paid $6,500 from Jan. 14, 2021 to Jan. 12, 2022
Hira is a member of the Howard County Democratic Central Committee, as is Jones and Director of Government Affairs and Strategic Partnership, Maureen Evans Arthur.
Arthur’s name does not appear on the list of campaign consultants provided to this news organization. She did not respond to a request for comment. Neither Ratliff and Jones responded to requests for comment. Attempts to reach Hira and Halpin through both the county’s public information administrator, Mark Miller, and the campaign were unsuccessful.
Ball’s decision to pay Jones, Hira and Halpin to work on his campaign is not illegal but it has raised ethical questions among his critics. However the county executive has strongly defended the hirings as a common practice.
“Some people will always say something. I think it is actually a quite common practice for elected officials to have people who work with campaign work and doing their job serving the county. It is actually not that uncommon,” Ball said during an interview that he cut short.
Kittleman, who is currently a commissioner on the Maryland Worker’s Compensation Commission, strongly disagreed.
“I am frankly surprised that the current county executive does not see that there is something wrong with that…It is hard for me to believe that the current county executive thinks that that is a normal practice. It is certainly not normal in Howard County. Maybe it is normal in some other jurisdictions…It should be disturbing to all of the residents of Howard County that our county executive is paying people in his office for doing county functions while also at the same time paying people that much money.”
Scott Peterson, who is a spokesperson for Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, and previously worked for Ball as his spokesman, said while Elrich “has not paid any Montgomery County government employee for campaign work,” he nevertheless “does acknowledge” that the practice is not uncommon. However, Peterson said that Elrich was speaking in a general sense and did not have specific cases in mind to support that the practice is common.
How common is the practice of paying employees to work on a campaign?
A review of six county executive’s campaign and Baltimore City finance records from 2020 through the beginning of this year showed that three counties and Baltimore City had paid employees but not to the extent of Ball paying that $101,000 tab.
Former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, a Democrat who served from 2007-15, also paid two county employees about $26,000 for work on his 2010 re-election campaign. However, the employees took a leave of absence from the county while working for the campaign. Ball’s employees did not take a leave of absence.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman paid about $5,000 to reimburse two county employees for campaign expenditures in 2020. Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski paid one county employee $11,000 between 2020-22. Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks paid two county employees $1,000 between 2021-22. And Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott paid one city employee about $14,000 between 2021-22. The four leaders are all Democrats.
Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner, a Democrat, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, a Republican, and Cecil County Executive Danielle Hornberger, also a Republican, did not employ the practice, according to the records reviewed..
Attempts were made to contact all of the county executives in the state.
Only Nine of Maryland’s 23 counties are led by county executives. The remaining 14 counties are led either by boards of commissioners or by county councils alone.
The amount of money Ball paid appears to be a major difference when comparing the counties and the city. The total sum paid by the three county executives and Mayor Scott comes to about $48,000, which is less than half of what Ball paid.
So is it a big deal?
“The difference is that Calvin Ball is engaged in a pervasive practice of operating his campaign out of the office of county executive,” former GOP delegate and former state transportation secretary Bob Flanagan said.
Michael Harris, a spokesperson for Howard County Council Chair Opel Jones, did not respond to a request for comment.
Jennifer Allgair, executive director for the State Ethics Commission, declined to comment on the practice of using county employees for campaign consulting, saying the matter is a county issue.
Repeated attempts to get a comment from the Howard County Ethics Commission proved unsuccessful. The five commission members are appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the county council.
Ball, who has a Master of Arts degree in Legal & Ethical Studies from the University of Baltimore, said he believes the four women worked for the campaign during “off-hours” on “campaign issues.” Ball did not provide specifics. Asked if he could provide documents related to the consulting work, Ball said the documents could “probably” be furnished “if needed.”
Repeated requests from the campaign for documents related to the specific nature of the consulting work were unanswered.
The campaign finance records obtained by this news organization in reference to Ball’s campaign list the bulk of the payments as general “consulting fees.”
Other payments were made in relation to special campaign events. Some of the events involved raffles and the use of fair booths. Payments also were made for online advertising and graphic design work. Specific dates are listed for the work performed but the specific hours worked are not documented.
Ball told this reporter to send additional questions to his staff to arrange a follow-up interview. Requests for follow-up interview with Ball and the documents were first sent to Miller. Miller then referred the requests to the campaign. The campaign has not responded to the requests for more information.
Flanagan knows a thing or two about information requests. He experienced numerous denials in a lawsuit for public records related to communications between Ball and a zoning lobbyist. The suit was filed in August 2021 in the Circuit Court for Howard County.
“The county has admitted to allegations in my complaint. They admit that they violated the Public Information Act requests and they admit they violated the Open Meetings Act…The other admission that they make is that Ball supervised his sister-in-law. If you go into the employee manual under nepotism, it says that the county will not hire somebody who is going to be supervised by a relative.”
Howard County did in fact admit they broke the law. “Defendant admits that it inadvertently violated the Public Information Act and Open Meetings Act,” Howard County said in its March 18 pleading.
Flanagan said he recently deposed Ball’s chief of staff, Sameer Sidh.
In that deposition, Sidh said he, not Ball, was responsible for supervising Ratliff, according to Flanagan.
When Sidh was reached for comment, he said, “Given that your question concerns pending litigation involving the County, I have no comment at this time.”
Flanagan said he ultimately received about 99% of the documents he requested from the county in the litigation.
“The coverup was far graver than what was concealed.”
This article was produced in partnership with MarylandReporter.com.
Bryan is a freelance political journalist who has extensive experience covering Congress and Maryland state government.
His work includes coverage of the election of Donald Trump, the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and attorneys general William Barr and Jeff Sessions-as well as that of the Maryland General Assembly, Gov. Larry Hogan, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bryan has broken stories involving athletic and sexual assault scandals with the Baltimore Post-Examiner.
His original UMBC investigation gained international attention, was featured in People Magazine and he was interviewed by ABC’s “Good Morning America” and local radio stations. Bryan broke subsequent stories documenting UMBC’s omission of a sexual assault on their daily crime log and a federal investigation related to the university’s handling of an alleged sexual assault.