Lobbyist-lawmaker bond subject of House hearing Presiding Del. Curran says close relationship needed by both sides

March 29, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

When legislators and lobbyists get together over dinner or around a bar after hours in Annapolis, the public often concludes that things have gotten a little too cozy.

But to Del. Gerald J. Curran, such socializing, far from being inappropriate, is the lubricant that greases the wheels of State House democracy -- whether it's being paid for by lobbyists, legislators or even campaign contributors.

"Our whole culture here revolves around the development of goodwill," said Mr. Curran, a Democrat from Northeast Baltimore. "Lobbyists want to have the best relationship with a legislator. So when they make their case, you don't think of them as a son of a bitch. They're salesmen. It's sales."

Mr. Curran, 57, and his matter-of-fact view of State House ethics will be on full display today.

The House Commerce and Government Matters Committee, which Mr. Curran chairs, is scheduled to consider a proposal that would make it easier for legislators to be entertained by lobbyists without publicly disclosing it.

Specifically, the bill would erase a requirement that legislators report their attendance at lobbyist-sponsored "special events" -- receptions, parties and athletic events to which the entire General Assembly or all members of a committee are invited.

Misleading impressions?

Many lawmakers consider it political poison to disclose the time they spend with lobbyists.

In many cases, these legislators argue, it's part of their job description to make brief appearances at functions given by special-interest groups. Disclosing attendance at those events would give a misleading impression to the public.

But advocates of strict ethics laws strongly oppose the measure pending in Mr. Curran's committee, saying it would be a step backward from major reform enacted by the legislature only last year.

Mr. Curran and many other legislators lose sight of the "bigger picture" when it comes to State House lobbying, said Deborah A. Povich, director of Common Cause of Maryland, a self-styled political watchdog group.

"We believe it's the public's fundamental right to have access to who's spending what to influence legislators," Ms. Povich said.

Mr. Curran supports the entertainment reporting bill, which has already passed the state Senate. In fact, he thinks it doesn't go far enough toward easing the restrictions.

He has introduced his own bill that would make it clear that a legislator can play a round of golf or bring a spouse along to dinner when a lobbyist is picking up the tab. If a lobbyist wants to take him to dinner, Mr. Curran said, it's "expected" that his wife come, too.

"It's awkward," Mr. Curran said, describing what can happen at the end of such a dinner. "You have to tell the waiter, 'I need a separate check here and I need these two on the same check.' To what end?"

Mr. Curran has not asked his committee to vote on his bill and said he might let the matter drop this year.

An insurance salesman and 30-year veteran of the House, Mr. Curran has a history of blurring the financial lines between his personal and political worlds.

He has used thousands of dollars from his campaign fund for spending money, with most of the fund collected from special interests and lobbyists who routinely appear before his House committee. Mr. Curran's practice is apparently legal, although advocates of campaign spending reform disapprove.

Over the last three years, Mr. Curran has spent at least $14,800 in campaign contributions on personal expenses or for entertaining in Annapolis, Baltimore and a handful of out-of-state conferences, according to his campaign finance reports filed with the state election board. That was more than 10 percent of his campaign fund.

More than $4,300 of those payments came during the 90-day legislative sessions in Annapolis each of the last two years, periods during which Mr. Curran's lodging, travel and meal expenses were already covered by state taxpayers. Mr. Curran said he is continuing this year to spend campaign funds on Annapolis entertaining.

'Political expenses'

Much of that money paid for what he termed "political expenses," everything from bar tabs at Annapolis restaurants to flowers for his committee staff.

Mr. Curran said he often pays for entertainment for legislators or lobbyists with his campaign funds. He considers it an investment in his political career. He would like to be speaker of the House or run for state comptroller some day, he said.

"The entertainment is part of the development of my political growth," Mr. Curran explained. "It's all part of the same thing. What you're doing is developing goodwill."

"I try to hold it down," he said, referring to the entertainment. "But you pick up a round of drinks and sometimes you're shocked at how much you spent."

While the focus of the ethics bill being considered today is disclosure of lobbyists' entertainment of legislators, Mr. Curran said he often turns the table, dipping into his campaign account to pay for dinner for a lobbyist who wants his ear on an issue.

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