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Legislative ethics panel admonishes Henson for conflict of interest, misuse of official title

Del. Shaneka Henson (D-Anne Arundel). Photo by Bryan P. Sears.

A legislative ethics panel has called on an Anne Arundel County lawmaker to apologize to the public, the speaker of the House and other legislative leaders for her involvement in funding requests for a religious organization to which she belongs.

The panel further recommended that Del. Shaneka Henson (D-Anne Arundel) not be reassigned to the House Appropriations Committee after what it called an “ongoing practice” to hide her personal and professional relationship with an organization seeking more than $1 million in state bond money.

Henson was removed from the House Appropriations Committee a year ago amid questions about her involvement in securing bond money for an Odenton-based religious group.

The rare public release Wednesday of the findings by the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics was released Wednesday, two days after the Maryland General Assembly ended its 2024 session. The five-page letter offers specifics of a review of Henson and her relationship to Odenton-based Kingdom Kare, the nonprofit arm for the nondenominational Kingdom Celebration Center.

In its letter, the panel found Henson’s relationship and actions created “at minimum, the appearance of a conflict of interest.” The panel also admonished the same lawmaker for an improper use of her official title in an advertisement for her law firm.

The panel reached its conclusions after an extensive investigation that began in March 2023 after House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) referred her concerns to the joint committee. As part of the investigation, the committee met behind closed doors three times this year, including a final meeting on April 1.

Del. Shaneka Henson (D-Anne Arundel) walks to the House Ways and Means Committee last year. Henson was reassigned to the committee amid ethics questions. The results of the probe were released Wednesday. Photo by Bryan P. Sears.

“In withholding the nature of her relationship with Kingdom Kare and the Veterans Resource Center, Delegate Henson breached the trust of her colleagues and placed them in a challenging position,” the ethics panel concluded. “The Ethics Committee has advised Delegate Henson that as a first step toward regaining the confidence of the members of the General Assembly, she should offer an apology to those legislators who were misled either directly or through her failure to disclose her relationship with Kingdom Kare and the Veterans Resource Center.”

The panel said it determined there was “an ongoing practice by Delegate Henson to hide her relationship with Kingdom Kare as evidenced by her false responses to direct questions during her meeting” with the Speaker of the House, and Del. J. Sandy Bartlett (D-Anne Arundel), who represents the Odenton area, “and her lack of transparency with other colleagues.”

Included in the list of people Henson was advised to apologize to are Jones; House Appropriations Chair Ben Barnes (D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel); Appropriations Vice Chair Mark S. Chang (D-Anne Arundel), who chairs the capital budget subcommittee and also represents the Odenton area; Del. Heather Bagnall (D), the chair of the Anne Arundel County House delegation; and delegates and senators who sponsored bond requests, including Bartlett, on behalf of Kingdom Kare during the 2022 and 2023 sessions.

Reviews by the legislative ethics panel are typically confidential except for when lawmakers ask for a public disclosure, when the panel recommends the legislature take formal action against a lawmaker or, as in this case, when the panel votes to waive confidentiality.

“The Ethics Committee finds that there has been an ongoing practice by Delegate Henson to hide her relationship with Kingdom Kare as evidenced by her false responses to direct questions during her meeting with you, her comments to Delegate Bartlett, and her lack of transparency with other colleagues,” the panel wrote. “In order to uphold the integrity of the ethics investigation process, the Ethics Committee, after careful and thorough consideration, has voted unanimously by the members participating to waive confidentiality with respect to the committee’s correspondence on this matter.”

Henson issued a statement on her website Wednesday that contradicted some findings of the ethics panel and chided her colleagues on the committee for failing to strike a more “collaborative and constructive tone.

“While I understand the importance of upholding ethical standards, I believe it’s essential to recognize and support organizations like Kingdom Kare that are making a tangible difference in the lives of Marylanders,” Henson wrote in her statement. “I’m grateful that this inquiry did not impede their great work, as it’s too important for politics to get in the way of such vital community efforts. I am deeply impressed by their commitment to our community which is evident through their diverse range of services, including a childcare center, family support center, food distribution, mentoring programs, health ambassador initiatives, violence interruption programs, and the invaluable support provided to our veterans.”

Recipient of state funding

Henson’s ethical missteps surfaced last year after Jones moved Henson from the House Appropriations Committee, reassigning her to the Ways and Means Committee. The change was sudden and without immediate explanation.

A source familiar with the move at the time said ethical concerns arose from Henson’s relationship to Odenton-based Kingdom Kare, the nonprofit arm for the nondenominational Kingdom Celebration Center. The church’s related nonprofit community outreach programs have sought more than $1.5 million in funding through the legislative bond program since 2020.

Henson has been a member of Kingdom Care Celebration Center for more than a decade. She has also served as an attorney representing Kingdom Kare Inc.

Henson, in her statement, wrote that her 13 years with the church “predates my public service, and my involvement with the church has been a significant part of my life journey. Faith has always been a cornerstone of my life, and my church family has been a source of strength and accountability for me throughout the years. Their values of service and compassion align closely with my own, and I am proud to support their efforts to uplift and empower our community.”

Henson’s statement did not address her legal representation of the organization nor specific accusations that she misrepresented that relationship and failed to avoid involvement in matters in which she may have had a direct interest.

During the 2022 legislative session, a legislative bond request for $850,000 was made on behalf of the Veterans Resource Center. On that request, Henson was listed as the legal representative for the organization.

Henson was questioned by legislative ethics staff about her association with Kingdom Kare. Henson said she performed estate work for the president and CEO of Kingdom Kare and her husband but provided no legal services to Kingdom Kare, according to the ethics report.

The General Assembly included funding for the center in the capital budget approved that session.

In May of that year, Kingdom Kare applied for a grant through the Anne Arundel County Video Lottery Facility Local Development Council. Included in the request for a feasibility study for the veteran’s center, Kingdom Kare requested $10,000 for legal review consultation. The ethics committee noted that in July of that year, Kingdom Kare contracted with Henson’s law firm, The Johnson Legal Group.

The Annapolis firm is solely owned by Henson, whose married name is Johnson.

Kingdom Kare paid Henson more than $10,000 between September 2022 and July 2023, according to the ethics report.

Between those two payments, Kingdom Kare requested another $650,000 for the veteran’s center. On the application, Henson was listed as legal counsel under the name Shaneka Johnson.

Henson attended a Feb. 3, 2023 meeting of the Anne Arundel County House Delegation where the Kingdom Kare request was presented. Henson “did not recuse herself from participating in the portion of the meeting that included Kingdom Kare” and “failed to disclose her contractual relationship with Kingdom Kare or the fact that she had already been paid by and expected to be paid again by” the organization for work related to the veteran’s center, according to the ethics committee letter.

Soon after, Jones, the leader of the House, learned of the potential conflict. She met with Henson, ethics staff and her own chief of staff on Feb. 16.

During that meeting, Henson denied being paid by Kingdom Kare, denied being legal counsel for the organization and said she did not know why the group listed her as their lawyer, according to the ethics report.

It was at that time that Jones removed Henson from the Appropriations Committee. She was reassigned to the Ways and Means Committee in a swap that sent Del. Dana Jones (D-Anne Arundel), who represents the same district, from Ways and Means to Appropriations.

Henson had served on the House Appropriations Committee since 2019 when she was appointed to fill the vacancy created by the death of then-House Speaker Michael Busch (D). She was later assigned to that panel’s Capital Budget Subcommittee, which reviews and makes recommendations on capital bond projects, including the so-called legislative bond initiatives.

Moving Dana Jones to Appropriations ensured that the district once represented by Busch would maintain representation on the Appropriations Committee.

The explanation for the move was first reported by Maryland Matters.

Following publication of the story, Henson had a discussion with Bartlett, according to the ethics panel.

In that conversation, Henson told Bartlett that she wished she had been paid.

“Delegate Bartlett took this to be an indication by Delegate Henson that she had not been compensated by Kingdom Kare, though at the time Delegate Henson had, in fact, received the first payment from Kingdom Kare,” according to the ethics report.

Bartlett is House co-chair of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics. She recused herself from the review but participated as a witness, according to the ethics panel. The ethics committee letter released Wednesday was signed solely by Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County), the other co-chair.

‘At a minimum, the appearance of a conflict of interest’

Following her meeting with the Speaker and publication of the Maryland Matters story last year, Henson filed a disclaimer of apparent or presumed conflict of interest related to Kingdom Kare and the veterans center. She filed a separate form recusing herself from voting and other legislative action with respect to bond requests by the organization and veterans center “because of her membership in Kingdom Kare’s church and because she provides ‘legal services to the church and its members unrelated to state programs’ and ‘legal services that support Kingdom Kare Inc. and its Veterans Resource Center, unrelated to state funds.'”

The ethics panel noted that Henson did not disclose “that she had an active contract to provide legal services to Kingdom Kare related to the Veterans Resource Center; that she received compensation for her activities related to Kingdom Kare and the Veterans Resource Center; or that the grant that funded her legal services was included as a source of funding on the bond initiative fact sheet for the Veterans Resource Center.”

“The Ethics Committee has determined that there is, at a minimum, the appearance of a conflict of interest with respect to Delegate Henson’s relationship with Kingdom Kare and the Veterans Resource Center,” the committee wrote. “The Ethics Committee believes it is more likely than not that Delegate Henson would have taken action related to the LBI (legislative bond initiative) that would have provided funding to her employer, Kingdom Kare, if you had not met with her and changed her committee assignment.”

The committee said it advised Henson that she may not participate in future requests on behalf of specific clients. The panel also “strongly advised” Henson “that her actions resulted in, at a minimum, the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

The panel said Henson’s removal from the Appropriations Committee by Speaker Jones was appropriate and was the same action the committee would have recommended. The committee also recommended that Henson not be assigned “to the Appropriations Committee in the future.”

In a second issue, the panel also found that Henson “misused the prestige of her state office by using her title in a solicitation for her law firm.”

The finding relates to a 2021 promotional booklet for the Annapolis celebration of Juneteenth.

Henson appears in an advertisement in the publication with her photo and the words “Delegate Shaneka Henson” along with an authority line for her delegate campaign committee and a solicitation for business for her law firm.

Henson said the materials, which appeared on a single page, were actually two separate advertisements.

“The Ethics Committee did not find this assertion credible,” the panel wrote, noting that the advertisement included “a central graphic” and that “all content and graphics on the page are surrounded by a single border.”

In her statement online, Henson wrote she was “honored to be recognized by the Annapolis Juneteenth Committee along with Speaker Adrienne Jones three years ago. It’s important to note that my position as delegate was not used to promote my legal practice at this event. The organizers are close family friends who I have known since childhood.”

The ethics committee said in its letter that it referred the matter to the Maryland State Board of Elections.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referenced an $8 million grant awarded in March by the Board of Public Works. That award went to a similarly named religious organization not affiliated with Odenton-based Kingdom Kares. 


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Legislative ethics panel admonishes Henson for conflict of interest, misuse of official title