Ethics panel has tradition of holding private hearings Young could agree to public discussion of allegations against him

December 16, 1997|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

When the General Assembly's ethics committee got together last week to discuss possible violations of state law by Sen. Larry Young, it met behind closed doors.

When it returns to the issue next month, it will meet privately again.

That is, unless Young and his attorneys agree to air the allegations in public.

In its quarter-century of existence, the ethics committee has always conducted its business privately -- largely to protect the reputations of lawmakers hit with unsubstantiated complaints, say legislators and others familiar with the process.

"The thinking behind the privacy question is that sometimes these allegations may not be true," said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., chairman of the ethics committee. "And that if the allegations themselves are public, that is something that could do a lot of damage to a member even though the allegation may not be true," said Montague, a Baltimore Democrat.

The secrecy in the Young case surrounds an investigation sparked by allegations that already have had widespread public airing in a Sun article that first disclosed them about two weeks ago and in subsequent newspaper articles.

Montague acknowledged that the drafters of the ethics law in the 1970s probably contemplated a process in which the committee would handle complaints from individuals, not issues generated by the news media.

Members of the committee said the fact that a widely disseminated article sparked the Young case did not warrant a change in the committee's long-standing approach.

"There may be differences, but our process is developed to handle all cases, so we will follow our procedure as developed by statute and practice," said Del. Pauline H. Menes, a Prince George's Democrat and ethics panel member.

The ethics committee is handling the Young case under a two-line section of Maryland law that gives the panel wide latitude, including the discretion to open its proceedings.

The law does not require the committee to close its proceedings in the Young case, but it can do so under exemptions to the state open-meetings law governing disciplinary actions, according to Robert A. Zarnoch, an assistant attorney general who advises the Assembly on legal matters.

The head of Common Cause/Maryland, which advocates open government, agreed that state law allows the ethics panel's proceedings to be confidential.

"The only way we have a real problem with that is if we are unable to get a satisfactory report of the proceedings," said Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause. "The public is going to know pretty quickly whether it has been a good-faith process."

The ethics committee launched its inquiry after an article in The Sun this month outlined how Young has 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 company that does business with the state. Young failed to report the fees to the ethics committee.

Similarly, he did not report receiving $33,500 he collected from Coppin State College under a no-bid consulting contract that paid him as much as $300 per hour. State education officials recently canceled the contract.

Young also has used his taxpayer-funded district office to run his private companies, The Sun reported.

The West Baltimore Democrat has denied any wrongdoing and has said that he welcomes an ethics committee investigation.

Young could, if he wanted, waive his right to confidentiality and allow the meetings to be open.

"No decision has been made in respect to that," said Gregg L. Bernstein, an attorney for Young.

Although the ethics committee's practice is mainly intended to protect a lawmaker from the publicity of unwarranted complaints, legislators say, it also gives the panel a chance to freely hash out sometimes complicated ethical issues that fall in a gray area of the law.

Pub Date: 12/16/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.