It Doesn't Conflict with My Interest

December 05, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

"Conflict of interest? What conflict of interest? How does this conflict with my interest?''

That remark, made in the early '70s by Baltimore tavern owner and state Senator Joseph J. Staszak when questioned about a bill he was pushing to benefit tavern owners, is now legendary in the State House hallways.

Joe Staszak saw no conflict in promoting his own self-interests. Many other lawmakers today also have trouble seeing how their actions might be perceived as a conflict of interest.

Some overlap is inevitable in a part-time legislature between an individual's public duties and private business affiliations. But the General Assembly has made matters worse by adopting fuzzy ethics rules that basically allow each lawmaker to determine if there is a conflict. The conscientious legislator submits any questionable concerns to the State Ethics Commission for an advisory ruling. Others declare that a conflict exists and refuse to vote on an issue. But a lawmaker, under the rules, can also vote on an issue despite a clear conflict simply by making a public declaration to that effect.

Essentially, each legislator has to decide individually how to handle charges of self-interest lawmaking. That hasn't proved the ideal remedy.

Situations where a lawmakers' private dealings overlap with his or her duties in the State House are on the rise. The problem is becoming ''pervasive'' as one insider put it. ''That's what causes the jaded public view of legislators,'' he said. Even the perception of a conflict (where none might exist) sends the wrong image to the public.

Take the case of Del. Timothy Maloney, a power in the House of Delegates who serves as a subcommittee appropriations chairman.

The Prince George's legislator, as part of his private legal practice, represents in court a number of nonprofit organizations trying to keep the county from cracking down on nighttime casino gambling. But Mr. Maloney says he religiously avoids giving any legislative guidance and has separated his legal work from his legislative work.

He has abstained from participating in legislative matters tied to charitable gambling, filed a disclosure statement, refused all comment on gambling matters, walked out of meetings when the topic arose and tried to insulate himself from even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

And yet, many legislators assume Mr. Maloney can wield indirect influence over gambling legislation. At the least, lawmakers fear that taking a tough stand against charity casino nights might hurt them when other issues come before Mr. Maloney's subcommittee.

There may be no basis for such fears. Mr. Maloney is, after all, one of Annapolis' more diligent office holders. He has gone to great lengths to avoid a conflict of interest. But reality may never catch up with the widespread perception.

Lawyers are especially vulnerable to the conflict of interest charge. The two panels that handle legal issues, for instance, are up to their necks in allegations of self-interest legislation.

Why have proposals to get tough with defendants in drunk-driving cases or put lids on malpractice claims run into such heated opposition? Look no further than the long list of defense lawyers sitting in judgment on these bills.

Even Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who is a defense lawyer, can wield influence to bottle up legislation that might hurt defense lawyers. No-fault insurance, for instance, doesn't stand a chance while Mr. Miller is in charge.

Lawyers aren't the only ones with economic conflicts. House Environmental Matters Committee chairman Ronald Guns of Cecil County works for C&P Telephone Co. Guess which committee handles bills affecting the Public Service Commission and utilities such as C&P? Mr. Guns doesn't have to open his mouth: Committee members know what to do with legislation cracking down on C&P.

Or look at the situation in the Appropriations Committee. Chairman Howard ''Pete'' Rawlings holds an administrative job at the Baltimore City Community College, which is state-financed and gets its money only with the approval of Mr. Rawlings' committee.

The chances of the legislature slashing BCCC's budget are virtually nil as long as Mr. Rawlings wields power. And he doesn't have to lift a finger to defend BCCC: Everyone in the legislature knows the reality of the situation.

Clearly, the public perceives this as more of a problem than the legislators themselves. There's no move afoot to establish a rigorous standard of conduct or to give legislators firmer procedures for handling conflicts of interest. That's too bad.

This laxity on the General Assembly's part only reinforces the notion among Marylanders that something is wrong in the State House -- even though that isn't always the case.

Leaving questions of ethical behavior to the lawmakers themselves may be the answer in an ideal world. But the State House isn't Utopia: It is a bare-knuckles political playing field badly in need of an umpire with the power to tell lawmakers what's fair and what's foul.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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