Catering -- for a price

July 13, 1993

Leslie E. Hutchinson knows a good thing when she sees it. Her position as a state delegate from Essex can be leveraged in any number of ways to funnel business to her new venture, Events Extraordinaire, a super-catering firm that will do everything from rent space to provide meals to line up speakers and entertainers. Just turn the screws on state officials and other interested bystanders in Annapolis and the money should roll in.

Sounds simple. It is. That's why Ms. Hutchinson wrote to 50 state agencies, cabinet secretaries and gubernatorial aides announcing her new venture, making it clear she's got a product to sell. What's implied between the lines is that as a member of the House of Delegates, Ms. Hutchinson's vote on bills is of considerable importance to state officials. Throwing a little business her way might help.

Are we reading too much into this? Is Ms. Hutchinson to be taken seriously when she says, "I didn't even think I could be gaining from my being a legislator in this letter . . . It was an announcement, that's all."

Yes, it certainly was an announcement. Next thing you know, legislators who sell insurance will be sending out similar letters -- just "announcements," mind you -- letting officials and lobbyists dependent on their votes know about the worthwhile insurance services available "at a low cost to you." And lawyer-legislators can send out letters "announcing" their own "low, low costs" for state officials and lobbyists' clients.

Regardless of whether Ms. Hutchinson has run afoul of an 11-year-old ethics board ruling, she ought to know that soliciting business from state leaders -- and others involved in the legislative process -- is a glaring conflict of interest. Yet she seems more intent on getting Events Extraordinaire off to a good start. She says she hopes to submit bids for state contracts. That ought to be fascinating. Dare officials turn her down without risking the wrath of a spurned delegate?

This one isn't even a close call. Ms. Hutchinson was wrong to send out her letter to government officials. She should not be seeking government contracts. And she certainly should not be doing catering business with companies that come before the legislature.

There are plenty of groups that might be interested in hiring Ms. Hutchinson's company. But if she wants to serve as caterer to the stars of the State House, she should relinquish her other duties in Annapolis. The conflict is all too evident.

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