2021 | Government

Ethics Commission finds no evidence that wife’s Pfizer job affects council member’s work

Union leaders had questioned whether Riemer had conflict of interest

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Council Member Hans Riemer.

File Photo

County Council Member Hans Riemer’s wife’s work with a vaccine manufacturer does not present a conflict of interest as he and colleagues make decisions on a potential vaccination mandate, the county’s Ethics Commission found.

County union leaders previously questioned if there was a conflict of interest since Riemer’s wife, Angela Riemer, works as a vice president of federal government relations for Pfizer, which manufactures one of the three COVID-19 vaccines currently approved for use in the United States.

After Riemer criticized the three unions’ questions and insinuations, he asked the county’s Ethics Commission on Oct. 13 for a review.

The Ethics Commission’s Oct. 18 advisory opinion states that since the federal government purchased the vaccine doses and not the county, a vaccination mandate imposed by the Montgomery County Council would have no financial impact on the county government or Pfizer.

“Because the United States government is supplying the vaccines, the cost for the company’s vaccine to Montgomery County is zero,” the commission wrote. “Further, the amount the company will receive from Montgomery County as a result of a vaccine mandate for County employees would also be zero. Consequently, the effect on the company would likewise be zero.”

Regardless, if Montgomery County imposed a mandate, likely requiring hundreds more people to get vaccinated, that share of the more than 3 billion doses Pfizer will manufacture this year is “infinitesimally small,” the commission’s opinion says.

Questions about whether a Montgomery County Council mandate could affect state or federal purchase “are so speculative that there cannot be said to be an ‘effect,’” the opinion says.

Riemer and Council Member Will Jawando previously introduced legislation that proposes a vaccination mandate for county employees, and allows for certain medical exemptions. Council Member Andrew Friedson has also voiced his support for a mandate. 

Union leaders, first responders and others opposed the legislation at a public hearing this week. 

In response to the commission’s opinion, the County Council on Thursday issued a statement backing Riemer’s previous assertion that there was no conflict. Riemer and Jawando’s legislation is an effort to keep county employees and residents safe, they wrote. 

“The public health legislation introduced by lead sponsors Councilmembers Riemer and Jawando about COVID-19 vaccinations for Montgomery County employees is one example of these efforts,” the County Council wrote in a statement. “The Ethics Commission affirmed Councilmember Riemer’s ability to act on this issue and found no conflict of interest with his wife’s job at Pfizer.”

Riemer — who states his wife’s employment on an annual financial disclosure form — said in an interview on Friday that the Ethics Commission’s opinion confirmed and underscored what he has said in response to the unions. 

“I wanted to make sure the community has the highest level of confidence in the decisions that we make, and I don’t want there to be any questions about it,” Riemer said. “So I was thinking we have an Ethics Commission for a reason, and I asked them to take it up.”

Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz said in an interview on Friday that he asked the council’s public information officers to draft the statement in support of Riemer. He added that he wasn’t surprised by the Ethics Commission’s opinion.

“I didn’t think it was fair that Hans’ family was dragged into this the way they were,” Albornoz said. “I wanted to make sure there was no way … that it impacted the public’s perception and trust in the decisions that we’ve had to make.”

Three union leaders — Lee Holland, the president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, the county’s police union; Gino Renne, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1994 MCGEO, a union that represents thousands of county government employees in various divisions; and Jeff Buddle, the president of the Montgomery County Career Fire Fighters Association, the union for local firefighters — did not immediately respond to a call or email for comment on Friday.

In their initial statement online, the unions — which have a longstanding contentious relationship with Riemer — asked: “Is he striving to protect the public health or to appease the source of a majority of his household income?” They posted questions in their statement about the Riemer’s work and stock ownership, but did not offer evidence of a conflict.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com