Dilution of law on ethics proposed Legislators behind reform last year want to weaken it now

February 14, 1996|By Marina Sarris and Peter Jensen | Marina Sarris and Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

A year after pushing ethics reforms through the Maryland General Assembly, two top legislators are trying to weaken laws requiring the disclosure of gifts from lobbyists.

Del. Gerald J. Curran and Sen. Michael J. Collins, who championed reforms last year, have proposed greater exemptions to requirements that lobbyists and legislators disclose free meals and drinks.

"The proposals will have the effect of putting the public in the dark about who is giving what to whom," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a citizens lobby group. "These bills will essentially gut meaningful disclosure."

Mr. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he is trying to clear up confusion created by last year's reforms, which sought to require more public reporting of the gifts lobbyists shower on state legislators.

His bill -- co-sponsored by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. -- would allow legislators to attend lobbyists' parties without having to report them to state ethics officials. The tTC measure also would make it easier for lobbyists to invite groups of legislators to receptions without having to disclose their guests by name.

A proposal by Mr. Curran, chairman of the House committee that oversees ethics law, contains similar provisions. It also would allow lawmakers to accept free meals for a spouse or guest.

Legislative parties thrown by lobbyists -- long a part of the Annapolis scene -- have come under suspicion during this year's session. Many legislators are concerned that they will have to report their attendance under a law requiring disclosure of gifts worth more than $25. Some receptions, held at posh local hotels and restaurants, cost that much per person.

That law isn't new, but the increased attention on ethics, fueled by the 1995 reforms, focused attention on it.

In the case of receptions, reporting didn't seem fair, said Mr. Curran, a Baltimore Democrat. "A legislator might drink a drink, eating nothing and leave," said Mr. Curran, chairman of the Commerce and Government Matters Committee. "How do you report that? They may not eat or drink anything. They are only being courteous by attending an event."

Some legislators shied away from receptions thrown for them by dentists and physical therapists at Annapolis establishments this year, according to lobbyist Daniel T. Doherty Jr., who represents both groups.

"We are trying to clear up the confusion that arose about receptions when we enacted reforms last year," Mr. Collins said. "We didn't intend for the members of the legislature to have discontent about going to receptions."

The 1995 reforms, which took effect in the fall, focused primarily on private meals between lobbyists and legislators, rather than the parties to which large groups are invited.

The laws sought to close loopholes that had allowed lobbyists to spend more than $700,000 a year on lawmakers without disclosing the recipients of their generosity. For example, one provision requires lobbyists to report the names of legislators who accept meals and drinks worth $15 or more.

After the law passed, some lobbyists said they would stop treating lawmakers to lunches and dinners to avoid the reporting requirement. Some legislators said they feared the information would become campaign fodder for their political opponents.

Mr. Curran said he is considering offering an amendment to raise the minimum reporting standard for lobbyists from $15 to $25 -- the same level at which the lawmakers themselves have to report meals.

"This whole thing is confusing," he said. "We want to keep it as simple as possible."

Lawmakers seem to be afraid not only of disclosure, but of cross-checking. They fear that political opponents will look at what lobbyists reported spending on legislators and find differences in what legislators said lobbyists spent on them.

"There is a new accountability," said John E. O'Donnell, director of the State Ethics Commission.

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