Opinion No. 93-17

The Department of Human Resources has requested Ethics Commission advice as to whether a Social Worker II in the Child Welfare Division of the Montgomery County Department of Social Services (MCDSS) may have private employment as a therapist with the Central Maryland Catholic Charities in Frederick County. We advise that an exception can be applied to allow this employment, as long as the employee and her local department continue to have only limited interaction with Associated Catholic Charities.

The Employee is a continuing care social worker in the treatment unit of MCDSS Child Welfare Division. She works primarily with young children suffering from neglect. Her job is to provide continuing treatment and services to the child and its family, with a view to reunification or other permanent solution. She identifies and connects the family with resources in the community, and monitors their participation and progress toward resolving the situation. This request involves the Employee's secondary employment as a therapist counselor in Brunswick, Maryland (Frederick County) with the Central Maryland Catholic Charities, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore. She works part-time at its Brunswick office providing counseling and emergency services to families. She receives referral assignments from the Catholic Charities Office in Emmitsburg Maryland, and through Catholic Charities, from a Frederick community advocacy program. She says that she would not receive any referrals from or provide services in connection with this employment to the Frederick County DSS or its clients.

According to the Director of Central Maryland Catholic Charities, this is a program unit of Associated Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, that operates with considerable independence from the parent organization. The Director advises that his organization is funded primarily by the local United Way, contributions, and fees collected from clients in a sliding fee scale program. It receives limited shortfall funding from Associated Catholic Charities, which comes from donated or similar sources rather than from the contractual income of programs. The Director indicates that his organization is solely involved in providing counseling services at four locations in Frederick County. He says that they have no involvement in foster care or related programs and have no funding or contractual relationship with the Frederick County or any other DSS.

Associated Catholic Charities of Baltimore, the parent organization of Central Maryland, currently has three areas of direct contractual dealings with the Department of Human Resources. These include: a contract involving the Social Services Administration (SSA) to provide child abuse prevention services in Baltimore County and City; a $15,000 agreement of the Community Services Administration with the Catholic Charities in Montgomery County for 50 nights of operation of a winter overflow shelter for the homeless; and four agreements with the SSA for the provision of foster care at four residential facilities located in Baltimore County.

Though the foster care facilities available under the four SSA/Catholic Charities contracts may receive placements for any local department in the State, we understand that there is a strong policy for placing a child as close as possible to the natural family and home, and that as a result facilities such as the Catholic Charities facilities in Baltimore County tend to serve primarily the local region where they are located. The Employee indicates that she is not aware of Catholic Charities being a resource either in the counseling or foster care areas and has never in her own work had occasion to deal with the organization. The Employee's supervisor, the Director of the Child Welfare Division in MCDSS, confirms that Catholic Charities has very minimal counseling activities in the County. Also, the MCDSS apparently does not rely upon the Baltimore Catholic Charities foster care facilities as a resource. The Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of the District of Columbia could be a resource for specialized foster homes, though the Director indicates that this has in the past tended to be a very limited relationship.

The Employee here has secondary employment with a program unit of the Catholic Charities of Baltimore. Since this employer has contracts with her agency, the employment is prohibited under §3-103(a)(1)(i) of the Public Ethics Law (Article 40A, §3-103(a)(1)(i), Annotated Code of Maryland, the Ethics Law), unless an exception is allowed under the Commission's regulations. This section bars employees from having outside employment relationships with entities that contract with their agency. Our regulations implementing the employment portion of this provision (COMAR 19A.02.01) define the circumstances where the relationships between an employee's official duties or her agency and the private employment are so remote that the possibility of a conflict or appearance of conflict is unlikely. The criteria include findings relating to an employee's dealings with her private employer in the context of her State duties, as well as consideration of how her private activities relate to her agency program or her own duties.

We have issued several opinions applying these regulations in situations involving employees in local units of State agencies, and in several situations have allowed exception where an employee's private employment was in another county, where the employee had no duties for either employer that impacted on the other, or where the private employer's dealings with the employee's agency were with the headquarters agency or another unit of her local department. (See, for example, Opinions No. 87-14, No. 88-6, No. 88-27, and No. 89-6.) All of these situations involved employees who had no dealings with their private employers in their State jobs, and all relied to some extent on the view of the Department of Human Resources that there was no conflict that would impair the agency in carrying out its programs.

It is our view as the situation is described here that the approach applied in allowing employment in these other cases would be applicable to permit the Employee to continue her employment with the Central Maryland Catholic Charities. This view is based on our understanding of the nature of her duties with Central Maryland, as well as the fact that this particular program has no direct dealings with MCDSS or DHR. Our conclusion also relies on the information from her supervisor at the MCDSS that neither her direct private employer nor its parent organization, the Associated Catholic Charities, have any significant interaction with or dealings with the MCDSS, and the organization is not generally viewed as a referral source for foster care or counseling situations. Moreover, we note that, pursuant to our regulations, the DHR ethics liaison has, on behalf of the Secretary, advised us that the Employee's service with Central Maryland Catholic charities would not give rise to a conflict of interest or appearance of conflict so as to impair the credibility of the Department.

Under all of these circumstances, and assuming that the circumstances continue as described, we advise the Employee and her agency that an exception can be applied to allow this employment.

Mark C. Medairy, Jr., Chairman
   Shirley P. Hill
   Michael L. May
   Mary M. Thompson

Date: December 15, 1993