Ethical loopholes

December 07, 1990

Lobbyist Bruce Bereano spent $162,000 last year -- $862 per lawmaker on average -- to wine and dine and otherwise entertain the men and women whose votes he wanted to sway. Then he kept secret the names of specific recipients of this largess. Bereano is quite right when he says he hasn't done anything illegal. But it doesn't follow that what's legal is what's right.

Blame Maryland's lobbying laws. In theory they demand accountability. In practice they do not require, nor even encourage it. Lobbyists, for instance, are required to disclose the identities of the lawmakers to whom they give gifts -- if the gifts total more than $75 in a six-month period. Fair enough. But here's the catch: Gifts or meals of less than $15 a day don't count toward the $75 reporting limit (a ticket to a Bullets game every week, for example). More than that, if lobbyists do give more expensive gifts, they are allowed to divide up the cost among the total number of clients they represent (which is in Bereano's case is some three dozen), neatly cutting its value below the reporting limit. Lawmakers, too, can use the same tactic to avoid reporting the gifts they receive. All of which makes the law essentially useless.

Worse yet, it's naive to assume that the most successful lobbyist in the state is spending all this money if he's not getting anything in return. Without knowing what is given and to whom, it looks, at least, as if some lawmakers have been bought. Obviously, this is not the way the process is supposed to work, and the legislature can fix it simply by tightening up lobbying laws. But will the lawmakers who are benefiting rein themselves in? Certainly it will be no easy task to get majority support -- especially while key lawmakers are getting the free lunches, so to speak -- but it's up to the legislative leadership to see that it happens. The credibility of state government is at stake.

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