The legislature's ethics committee will begin investigating the business affairs of Sen. Larry Young today, with the veteran lawmaker's reputation and potentially his State House power on the line.
The 12-member panel is expected to outline the areas it wants to investigate, drawing from an article last week in The Sun that reported possible ethical violations by Young.
The committee inquiry could clear Young of violating state ethics laws or, if it finds improprieties, lead to disciplinary action by the 47-member Senate, including expulsion.
Recent interviews with several senators suggest that if violations are substantiated, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller could face strong pressure to remove Young from one or both of his influential committee posts in Annapolis.
General Assembly leaders hope the inquiry can be finished by Jan. 14, the beginning of the annual 90-day legislative session.
"I don't want this thing dragged out through the year 1998," Miller said yesterday. "I want this thing up or down."
The Sun reported last week that Young appears to have used his legislative position to benefit three private companies he has created. His LY Group, for example, has been receiving thousands of dollars in fees from Merit Behavioral Care Corp., a mental-health firm that does business with the state. Young failed to report the fees to the ethics committee.
Similarly, the Baltimore Democrat did not report receiving $33,500 in fees from a no-bid consulting contract with Coppin State College. The contract has drawn fire from legislators and was canceled last week by state education officials.
Young also appears to have used his taxpayer-funded district office to run his private businesses, the Sun reported.
Legislative leaders have scrambled in recent days to review details of the ethics process because Young's possible improprieties are potentially more serious than the cases typically handled by the committee and its actions are sure to receive media scrutiny.
"This is a little more complex than anything we're used to seeing," said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., the ethics committee chairman.
Young, who has denied any wrongdoing, is scheduled to present his side of the story to the panel Jan. 6.
The committee, after hearing from Young and possibly other witnesses, will issue findings as to whether the senator violated any ethics law. If it finds violations, the panel could also recommend disciplinary action to the Assembly's presiding officers.
In the meantime, the committee will cooperate with the state prosecutor's office, which has, according to sources, launched an investigation to determine whether criminal charges are warranted.
Montague, a Baltimore Democrat, has asked legislative leaders for outside assistance with the committee's inquiry, such as a lawyer or someone with accounting experience, to help sort through Young's business activities.
Miller said the committee should be given the resources it needs, but said he worries about the panel treading into areas that might involve potential criminal violations.
"If they need added resources to do the job, I'm certainly not averse to it," said Miller, a Prince George's Democrat. "But I don't want to turn the ethics committee into a grand jury."
The ethics panel can ask witnesses to testify and provide documents but does not have the power to subpoena witnesses to appear.
Miller and his House counterpart, Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., acknowledge the committee will be hard-pressed to conclude its review by Jan. 14.
But both said it is crucial to try.
"Otherwise you start the session with sort of a cloud hanging over everybody's head," said Taylor, a Cumberland Democrat.
Charges of ethical violations by General Assembly members rarely lead to action by either the House of Delegates or Senate as a whole.
In one case in 1981, the House voted its "disapproval" of Del. Francis B. Santangelo of Prince George's for not disclosing his financial interest in a big-band promotion company that received state contracts for performances at the Ocean City Convention Center.
That vote came after the ethics committee and later a panel found problems with Santangelo's handling of the matter.
The House action in that case was widely perceived as a slap on the wrist, and delegates gave Santangelo a standing ovation after the vote was cast.
Meanwhile yesterday, the state's top mental health official said he was unaware that a conference he recently attended was financed primarily by Merit Behavioral.
Oscar L. Morgan, head of the Mental Hygiene Administration, said he was invited to attend the conference last month by Young and Young's National Black Health Study Group. He said he was one of three state mental health officials to serve on a panel discussing the impact of managed care on mental health services.
"I was asked by the senator to go there," Morgan said.
Asked if he would have accepted the invitation if he knew a firm that does business with the state was underwriting most of the costs, Morgan said, "I probably would have acted differently if I had known."
Morgan said he did get his attendance at the event cleared in advance by his boss, state Health Secretary Martin P. Wasserman.
Merit officials have acknowledged they contributed $25,000 to the National Black Health Study Group to help pay for the Las Vegas conference.
Also helping to underwrite the costs was PrimeHealth Corp, an HMO that has a state contract to serve Medicaid recipients.
Pub Date: 12/09/97