Delegate solicits state business Ethics issue raised by letter to officials

July 09, 1993|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer

A state delegate from Essex has sent letters to a variety of state officials soliciting business for her new company -- a possible violation of ethics rules.

"Since you know me only in my capacity as a legislator and that of a Democratic Party activist, I want you to be aware of my new business," Del. Leslie E. Hutchinson wrote to 50 state agencies, Cabinet secretaries and gubernatorial aides. "I am the President of Events Extraordinaire."

Her company, the letter said, will plan parties and conferences, doing everything from finding the hotel space and the caterer to obtaining speakers and the entertainment, all "at a low cost to you."

An 11-year-old advisory opinion from the legislature's ethics committee warns legislators not to "use the title of senator or delegate for any commercial purpose."

Ms. Hutchinson said she didn't know about the ethics advisory when she mailed the letters during the past month. And she never intended to trade on her power and prestige as a legislator to get business, she said.

She said she only mentioned her position to jog people's memory of how they might know her.

The co-chairmen of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, Sen. Julian L. Lapides and Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., declined to comment on the letter itself, but did discuss the issue generally.

"Generally the rule is that a legislator cannot use his or her position as a legislator to promote themselves or to promote a person's economic interests. It's really a gray area in terms of when the fact that one is legislator is used to solicit business," said Mr. Montague, a Baltimore Democrat.

Ms. Hutchinson, a first-term Democrat from a politically connected Baltimore County family, said, "I didn't even think I could be gaining from my being a legislator in this letter. I'm not saying, 'I'm a legislator, you better hire me.' It was an announcement, that's all.

"If I was doing something unethical, I wouldn't write [everyone] about it. I would be calling them," she said, adding that she had not gotten any business yet from the letters.

She said that she sent 1,321 similar letters to businesses but that those did not mention that she is a legislator.

Ms. Hutchinson said she hopes to submit bids for state contracts. If she won one by being the low bidder, she said, she would file the required financial disclosure forms and excuse herself from voting on bills affecting that agency.

Although legislators may do business with the state, the ethics committee has urged them not to identify themselves as lawmakers when doing so.

The committee wrote in 1973 that "the purpose, among others, )) of a Code of Ethics is to eliminate any possibility that the general public might think that your legislative role is enhancing your own personal financial position."

Ms. Hutchinson said she spoke with Mr. Montague about her letters the same day she received an inquiry from The Sun. She said he told her the letters fell into "a gray area."

"In retrospect, had I talked to Ken Montague before this happened, my sense is that he would have said, 'Les, it's a gray area, don't do it.' And I probably wouldn't have done it."

David S. Iannucci, the governor's chief lobbyist, received one of her letters. "I do not think it was the first such letter I received since I've been here," he said. "As far as the letter of the law, there's unlikely to be any problem with what she did."

In fact, when the General Assembly considered the ethics law in 1979, it apparently exempted itself from the part that prohibits officials from using the prestige of their office for personal gain.

During that debate 14 years ago, someone amended the bill so that it appeared to apply only to "public" officials, such as Cabinet secretaries, and not to "elected" officials, such as legislators, said former Del. Donald B. Robertson, a Montgomery County Democrat who helped draft the legislation.

Nonetheless, the legislative ethics committee decided three years later that "a legislator should be held to the same standard as a public official of the state."

Mr. Robertson said he believes that ethics committee decisions do not carry as much weight as the law itself.

"It's not like an enacted or enrolled law," conceded Mr. Lapides, a Democrat from Baltimore, "but it does carry extensive weight."

Although the committee has the power to recommend the removal of a legislator who violates the rules, the vast majority of cases are not serious enough to reach that level.

"In most cases we say stop [violating an ethics rule], and they stop," Mr. Lapides said. "Usually they do a letter of apology or they come in and are mortified."

The committee keeps such cases confidential, he said, because "you don't want to hurt someone who has made an honest mistake."

DEL. LESLIE E. HUTCHINSON'S LETTER EXCERPTS

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