(A)   Filing of complaints. Any person, including the Ethics Commission on its own motion, may file a complaint of questionable conduct or misconduct with the Ethics Commission. Such complaints must:
      (1)   Be against an official, employee, or lobbyist under the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission;
      (2)   Allege a violation of any of the provisions of this chapter either by:
         (a)   Actual activities or decisions that present a conflict of interest; or
         (b)   Conduct or relationships that give the appearance of a conflict of interest or improper influence; or
         (c)   Conduct that may present a conflict of interest or improper influence; or
         (d)   Conduct or relationships that violate the financial disclosure or lobbying provisions of this chapter including failure to adequately complete forms.
      (3)   Be filed with the Ethics Commission in writing and under oath with penalty of perjury. The written complaint of violation must contain the name of the employee or official and set forth sufficient facts to substantiate the alleged violation. The complaint must also contain the name, address, and telephone number of the complainant.
      (4)   A complaint must be filed within two years after the date of the alleged violation.
   (B)   Confidentiality. After a complaint is filed the proceedings, meetings, and activities of the Ethics Commission relating to the complaint are confidential as outlined in § 34.15.
   (C)   Processing complaints.
      (1)   Recording complaints. Once the Ethics Commission receives a complaint it will be recorded in an appropriate confidential log under a unique file number. This log will be kept with confidential files and will not be subject to public view. If a reasonable basis exists for a preliminary inquiry, the Ethics Commission will send written notice of the complaint to the complainant and respondent.
      (2)   Investigating complaints.
         (a)   Prior to questioning any respondent, he or she shall be informed of his or her right to have legal representation present if he or she so desires.
         (b)   Preliminary inquiry. The Ethics Commission, through the Ethics Administrator, may conduct a preliminary inquiry to determine whether the matter should be processed as a complaint. If there are insufficient facts upon which to base a determination of a violation, the Ethics Commission, through the Ethics Administrator, will judge that the matter does not qualify for further action. The disposition will be entered in the confidential log. The Ethics Commission will dismiss the complaint and notify the complainant and respondent in writing. All information will be subject to the confidentiality provisions of this chapter.
         (c)   Formal investigation.
            1.   Complaints which are determined to have enough merit for further action will be investigated by the Ethics Administrator with assistance from selected county staff.
            2.   The Ethics Commission may refer a complaint to the County Attorney, or other legal counsel, if appropriate, for investigation and review.
            3.   After investigation, the Ethics Administrator will call an Ethics Commission meeting to present the results of the investigations of the complaints to the Ethics Commission for its consideration. This report may contain, but need not contain, provisions for a resolution of minor infractions, which have been agreed to by the respondent. The Ethics Commission may accept this resolution and no hearing need be scheduled. Upon resolution, the Ethics Commission will notify the complainant and respondent in writing.
            4.   If the Ethics Commission determines that there is sufficient evidence that a violation of the ethics laws has or is occurring, and a resolution is not appropriate, a hearing will commence, either in conjunction with the investigation report meeting or at a later date. The respondent and complainant will be notified in writing at least 30 days prior to the Commission meeting at which the investigation report will be presented and a decision to have a hearing may be made. The letter will contain the preliminary findings of the Ethics Commission and will indicate that a hearing may be held in conjunction with the report of the investigation or at a later date. The subject of the complaint will be given an opportunity to address the Ethics Commission regarding the complaint.
   (D)   Oaths and requests. The Ethics Commission will have the following powers to the extent permitted by law:
      (1)   On its own or through its designee, the Ethics Commission may administer oaths and affirmations.
      (2)   The Ethics Commission may request in writing any person to attend, testify, or produce books, papers, records, documents or other tangible objects.
      (3)   County employees are expected to comply with all requests from the Ethics Commission or be subject to action under Chapter 36 of this County Code.
   (E)   Hearings.
      (1)   The Ethics Commission will conduct hearings. A member may recuse himself or herself if a personal interest may present a conflict or an appearance of conflict. Hearings are not open to the public.
      (2)   The respondent may be represented by counsel of their choosing and may present evidence and witnesses on their own behalf.
      (3)   The respondent is entitled to know the names of all witnesses and is entitled to receive copies of all evidence against him or her at least 30 days prior to a formal hearing.
      (4)   The respondent has a right to be present during testimony of all witnesses and shall have the right of cross examination.
      (5)   All hearings are administrative hearings and are therefore not subject to the strict rules of evidence. Latitude is available to the Ethics Commission in order to determine the true circumstances of the case and arrive at an appropriate conclusion.
      (6)   The respondent(s) shall be the only party or parties to the proceeding, and any evidence, witnesses, and investigation results will be presented to the Ethics Commission by the Ethics Administrator or, if necessary, by staff assisting the Ethics Administrator.
      (7)   The standard of review used by the Ethics Commission in determining whether a violation has occurred will be a preponderance of the evidence.
      (8)   The Ethics Commission will make written findings of fact and conclusions of law based on evidence presented at the hearing. The report of the Ethics Commission will contain the alleged violations, the elements of the violations, the findings of fact by the Ethics Commission, action taken by the Ethics Commission, and the signature of Ethics Commission members present at the hearing. The Ethics Commission will send its written findings to the complainant and respondent.
      (9)   Upon finding of a violation, the Ethics Commission may take any enforcement action provided for in § 34.17 of this chapter.
      (10)   A finding of a violation is public information. Written reports of investigations will be maintained as public records and, should there be a request for viewing under the Maryland Public Information Act, will be redacted (edited) to protect personally identifiable information.
   (F)   Criminal activity.
      (1)   If the Ethics Commission, while considering a complaint, finds that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the respondent may have committed a criminal offense, the Ethics Commission will promptly refer the matter to an appropriate prosecuting authority.
      (2)   The Ethics Commission will make available to the prosecuting authority all pertinent evidence or information under its control.
   (G)   Dismissal of complaint. The Ethics Commission may at any time dismiss a complaint if it believes that probable cause of a violation of this chapter does not exist.
(2004 Code, § 18-7) (Ord. 03-14, passed 7-1-2003; Ord. 2018-02, passed 3-13-2018; Ord. 2021-03, passed 3-11-2021)