Montgomery County Council members sharply criticized Chief Administrative Officer Andrew Kleine on Tuesday for ethics violations that came with a $5,000 fine.
Kleine, who was appointed CAO by then-incoming County Executive Marc Elrich in 2018, admitted in early July to violating county ethics law by promoting his book “City on the Line” and maintaining business relationships with two outside companies.
He continued promoting the book during his first year as CAO, sometimes at out-of-town conferences at the county’s expense, according to a July 1 report released by the county’s Ethics Commission.
He must pay $5,000 to the county as part of his punishment.
Kleine also apologized, calling his behavior “careless errors in judgement.”
During their meeting on Tuesday, County Council members listened to a summary of the Ethics Commission’s investigation and findings. Robert Cobb, the chief counsel for the commission, said during a hearing that the $5,000 penalty was a “proposal to cure” that was agreed on between Kleine and the commission, and brought the matter to a close.
Gabe Albornoz was among the council members who said they don’t think the fine goes far enough. He said he doesn’t blame the commission, but rather the executive branch for not imposing a swifter penalty.
“The ripple effect of a situation like this is profound,” Albornoz said. “What do we say to department heads who are also found guilty of similar violations? That you get one strike? You get a pass the first time around? Yes, there is a cure, but the cure for a payment of $5,000 and the retainment of employment is significant in light of what we have seen.”
Albornoz said he was “troubled” that Kleine was not placed on administrative leave during the course of the investigation.
Council Member Andrew Friedson said Kleine’s ethics violations are “a clear violation of ethics and of public trust.”
“It’s not a member of the county government. It’s not some county employee. It is the top county employee. The person who is in charge of running the government,” he said.
Friedson said the $5,000 cure is “effectively a plea agreement,” but further penalties would be a matter for the executive branch to take up, and not the Ethics Commission.
Council Member Hans Riemer said Elrich allowed Kleine to “apply his personal business practice to the management of county government.”
“If another employee had done something similar within the executive branch, I think we all believe the county executive would have had a different view,” he said.
Elrich could not be reached for comment Tuesday or Wednesday. Elrich wrote in a previous statement this month, after the Ethics Commission’s finding, that Kleine is a “committed public servant.”
“Andrew has acknowledged that his actions were an error in judgment and has accepted responsibility for his actions,” Elrich wrote.
Kleine responded to a phone call from a reporter with an email on Wednesday asking for specific questions in writing. He had not responded to a subsequent email from the reporter by 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday.
Albornoz on Tuesday suggested that if a person of color in county government committed a similar ethics violation, they might have received a harsher penalty than Kleine, who is white.
“I say this as a Latino,” Albornoz said. “As we talk about equity, had this been a minority or a person of color, would he or she have been treated the same? I can’t say that for sure, which is a terrible thing to say. But I think that there are so many undertones within this issue that demand this be taken more seriously by the executive branch and by our county executive.”
Council Member Craig Rice also suggested that there was a double standard applied in Kleine’s case.
“We’ve seen how white-collar crime is treated differently,” Rice said. “The name itself and the moniker itself [have a] ‘well, it wasn’t really that bad and no one was really hurt by it, so therefore we can sweep it under the rug’ kind of mentality, when I know people of color who have gone to jail over similar sorts of things.”
Council Administrator Marlene Michaelson said ethics training should be mandatory for all county employees to help them avoid possible ethics violations. Ethics Commission chairman Rahul Goel also suggested mandatory ethics training.
Michaelson said council members currently must go through ethics training twice in their term.
Council members welcomed the idea, but said training wouldn’t have prevented a county employee such as Kleine from committing his violations.
“It is very difficult with a straight face to say to our employees, ‘You’re gonna have to go to mandatory training,’ when the CAO didn’t seem to understand the basics of ethics and conflicts of interest,” Council Member Nancy Navarro said.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org