Opinion says Nash's lobbying violated city ethics ordinance

Sep. 16—Frederick Alderwoman Katie Nash violated the city's ethics rules by lobbying on behalf of a firefighter union's concerns about county emergency services coverage in the city, an Ethics Commission ruled.

Nash, a lobbyist registered with the state, improperly emailed people, including coordinators for various Neighborhood Advisory Councils, encouraging them to raise concerns with the county about plans to shift coverage of paramedic services in parts of the city, according to the commission's opinion released on Thursday.

Nash, D, was a paid lobbyist for the International Association of Firefighters Local 3666 when she sent out emails and press releases in June. In the email, the union is critical of the county's plan to move an advanced life support unit from its location on Montevue Lane to the new Northgate Fire Station on Thomas Johnson Drive, which opened in June.

One press release labels the ALS change "dangerous" and quotes the union president calling the change "appalling" and "an outrageous denial of service."

"She took advantage of the NACs as a conduit for her lobbying efforts, knowing that NAC coordinators would give great weight to issues raised by a member of the City's Board of Alderman [sic], and she did so to benefit her client and her business," the decision found.

Being paid by the firefighters union gave Nash a financial interest in the county's plan, and she "impermissibly participated in that matter by asking certain NAC coordinators to raise their concerns with the county," the opinion said.

County Executive Jan Gardner, D, filed an ethics complaint in June. The decision notes that Gardner filed the complaint in a personal rather than official capacity.

An emotional Nash read a statement at the end of Thursday's meeting of the mayor and aldermen, acknowledging the decision.

"While these charges are very serious, and I took them seriously, in my heart and in my interpretation of the guidance previously provided to me, I believed I had acted within the bounds of the ethics guidance," Nash said. "We were in the height of the primary election season. I've been an ongoing vocal critic of actions taken by the county executive. I believed this to be part of this ongoing political drama."

The ethics commission issued Nash an advisory opinion on Nov. 3, 2021, the day after her election but before she was sworn in as an alderwoman. The advisory opinion warned that although the ethics ordinance didn't prohibit an elected official from working as a lobbyist, "it has the potential to raise several concerns."

Nash was elected with the most votes of any aldermanic candidate, becoming the president pro-tem of the Board of Aldermen.

"As a member of this body, we are asked to uphold a pristine ethical standard," Nash said Thursday. "The Ethics Commission found that I failed in upholding those standards. This finding is devastating to me and my family."

In the opinion, the commission said Nash testified that she was not specifically using the NACs to advocate for her client. Rather, her email went to community leaders, some of whom happened to be NAC coordinators, Nash told the commission.

Nash also told the commission that her email did not use her city title or anything to give the idea that she was speaking on behalf of the city, and that she "disclosed that she was speaking for a client."

Nash did not vote or participate in any matter that came before the Board of Aldermen on behalf of her clients, the opinion says.

Gardner said in an interview on Thursday that she agreed with the commission's finding that Nash violated the ethics ordinance.

She also called for the ethics commission to fine Nash — which it declined to do since it was her first violation of the ethics ordinance — because Gardner felt the violation was "so egregious."

"As a city official, I think she was really irresponsible, and frankly, reprehensible," Gardner said.

Nash said Thursday she was still considering how to proceed, including a possible appeal.

The ethics commission, in its opinion, advised that Nash avoid engaging in any lobbying on matters with a "substantial direct effect" on city residents or services.

Nash said she will likely have to ask for guidance on what constitutes a "substantial, direct effect."

The opinion says Gardner filed her complaint on June 22. The ethics commission met on June 30 and determined that there was "a reasonable basis for believing a violation had occurred."

The commission then held a hearing on Aug. 25 to consider the complaint. David Diehl spoke as a witness in support of Gardner's complaint.

Three members of the commission were present for the hearing: Phillip W. Bowers (the vice chair, acting as chair), Maureen Connors and Cornelius R. Fay III, the opinion says.

Staff writer Jack Hogan contributed to this story.

Follow Ryan Marshall on Twitter: @RMarshallFNP