Larry Young case underscores long-time lack of checks on Maryland lawmakers' ethics

December 07, 1997|By Barry Rascovar

EVERY FEW YEARS, the name Joseph J. Staszak reappears in print. It's always for the same reason, too, that the immortal words of the late East Baltimore ward heeler and state senator are given renewed prominence.

Thanks to Larry Young, it's resurrection time once again.

Immortal words

What Staszak said in the early 1970s, while standing on the floor of the Maryland Senate after a morning meeting of that legislative body, concerned a bill be was pushing that would directly increase his tavern's business. He was asked by a reporter if he considered that a conflict of interest.

''Conflict of interest?'' he replied quizzically. ''How does this conflict with my interest?''

Indeed.

Staszak saw nothing wrong in using his legislative position to help put money in his company's bank account. Similarly, state Sen. Larry Young of West Baltimore sees nothing wrong in ''leveraging'' (as he put it himself) his post in Annapolis to benefit companies he has started.

His lapses in ethics are blatant. Blaming it on Sun reporters who wrote the investigative story last week, or on racism won't work. He has put himself and his legislative colleagues in an embarrassing position.

Indeed, Mr. Young's predicament could extend far beyond embarrassment. The state prosecutor is rightly examining evidence to determine if laws were broken. Even if he gets a clear bill of health, Mr. Young still could be stripped of the legislative posts that have provided him with his ''leverage.''

That is, if legislative leaders recognize the seriousness of Mr. Young's ethical lapses. That could be a problem, since members of the General Assembly's joint ethics committee have rarely come down harshly on their colleagues.

Mr. Young traded on his legislative position to gain fees for his companies from health-care companies that do millions in business with the state. He pressed businesses to contribute to his various causes. And he worked out a deal with Coppin State College to serve as a consultant -- essentially a lobbyist for Coppin's requests that go before the legislature and the administration.

None of this is new. Senate President Thomas V. ''Mike'' Miller has had talks with Mr. Young before about his questionable activities. When he was in the House, Mr. Young was cautioned by House speakers, too. Over the years, Mr. Young has not been shy about pressing lobbyists. And he put his position as chairman of the Executive Nominations Committee to good use as well.

But rarely has any of this received a public airing. Now that it has, Mr. Miller might not be able to let Mr. Young off with a slight tap on the wrist.

For one thing, exonerating Mr. Young would be tantamount to Mr. Miller saying ''everybody does it.'' Well, ''everybody'' doesn't do it. But in the public's eyes, failure to discipline a wayward legislator makes all legislators look sleazy.

For another, Mr. Miller cannot let Larry Young become a poster child for Republican Ellen Sauerbrey's crusade to ''change the culture in Annapolis.''

The longer Mr. Young remains in leadership posts, the more frequently Ms. Sauerbrey will use him to excoriate Democrats.

That could pose a dual danger for Mr. Miller. First, his new-found devotion to Gov. Parris N. Glendening might be for naught, since Mr. Glendening is the most likely person to be tied to Mr. Young by the Republicans. Second, if Ms. Sauerbrey successfully uses Mr. Young as Exhibit A in her argument for making a clean sweep of Democrats in Annapolis, she might generate enough voter momentum to endanger Mr. Miller's control of the Senate.

Lax standards

In a large sense, the discomfiture of legislative leaders is deserved. Over the years, lawmakers have failed to set tough standards of conduct for themselves. And they have been even more remiss in failing to set tough enforcement mechanisms. Indeed, lawmakers have consistently denied to the state prosecutor the money and the enforcement statutes he needs to do his job properly.

The notion that a weak, internal legislative ethics committee -- which meets in private and never reveals details -- can keep legislators on the straight and narrow is a myth propagated by lawmakers themselves.

The Young case could be a turning point for state legislators. Either they get serious about enforcing high ethical standards or they risk infuriating voters as this becomes a prime campaign issue.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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