State ethics panel expands gift-giving from lobbyists Lawmakers' spouses may get trips, meals

November 27, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

The General Assembly's ethics oversight committee has decided to allow the spouses of legislators to accept gifts such as meals and trips from lobbyists -- a move that reverses a 15-year-old policy and effectively doubles the amount of gift-giving allowed in Annapolis.

By a vote of 7-1, the legislature's joint committee on ethics quietly endorsed a proposal last week to allow spouses to accept the same gifts that the lawmakers are allowed to take.

The vote has dismayed some advocates of strict ethics law who predict that the change could lead to abuse and increase public cynicism about the influence of lobbyists on the legislative process.

Proponents, however, counter that the change is needed to clear up confusion over whether a spouse can accompany a legislator to events -- even if they are paid for by a lobbyist.

"The thinking was that the legislator and spouse should be considered as one for any of this entertainment," said Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat and co-chairman of the ethics panel. "I think the public would support the husband and wife doing things together, for heaven's sake."

But Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., the other co-chairman of the group and the sole vote against the change in policy, said the move was an ill-conceived reversal of long-standing legislative policy and a misinterpretation of state law.

"The public is already suspicious of what happens down in Annapolis," said Montague, a Baltimore Democrat. "If the ethics committee is giving license to legislators accepting more gifts, I think it sends a very bad message."

Maryland law bans gifts to state legislators except under certain circumstances.

A lobbyist is allowed, for example, to buy dinner for a senator or delegate to discuss pending legislation. The ethics committee's action means the lobbyist could buy a meal for the legislator's spouse as well.

The action also would allow a lobbyist or corporate trade group to pay for the spouse to accompany a legislator to a convention or other event, as long as the lawmaker has been invited to speak or appear on a panel.

"You could have a lobbyist paying for an extended vacation for a legislator and his or her family," Montague said.

Under the new policy, any gift to a spouse would have to be disclosed on the legislator's annual financial disclosure statement if the gift had a value of more than $25, Collins said.

Assurance based on scrutiny

He said such scrutiny would give the public confidence that lawmakers and their spouses are not collecting inappropriate or excessive numbers of gifts.

"I don't think there should be a concern," Collins said.

Both of the General Assembly's presiding officers, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., said yesterday that they approved of the policy change.

Both said it is not unusual for spouses to accompany lawmakers to events paid for by lobbyists. The change in policy will require legislators to disclose those gifts to spouses, a move that will benefit the public, they noted.

"If the legislator is willing to let the whole world know that he and his wife went out with a lobbyist and is willing to accept the consequences of what the public thinks, it's his business," Taylor said.

Public backlash foreseen

But the head of a governmental ethics watchdog group predicted that the public will be turned off by any move that allows legislators or their families to accept more gifts from lobbyists.

"I think they have gone in a manner absolutely contrary to public opinion," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland. "The public doesn't want their elected officials to get more gifts from lobbyists. They want them to get fewer gifts."

Until 1981, state law specifically allowed the spouses of legislators to accept gifts in certain circumstances. That year, the General Assembly repealed the provision as part of a major overhaul of state ethics law.

As a result, the legislative ethics committee until last week had interpreted the law as prohibiting gifts to spouses, Povich said.

Interpretation ignored

Only 14 months ago, the ethics committee interpreted the law as prohibiting gifts to spouses in an advisory opinion given to all 188 members of the General Assembly.

"Not permitted to be accepted are situations where a member and spouse would be invited to have dinner at a restaurant by a lobbyist," the committee said in its opinion dated Sept. 26, 1995.

Collins said the ethics committee staff will draft an advisory opinion to reflect the committee's new position.

The committee will then go over the draft opinion before issuing it to the full legislature, he said.

Pub Date: 11/27/96

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