Assembly is urged to halt probe Curran advice rejected on Young inquiry

December 19, 1997|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Scott Higham contributed to this article.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. urged legislative leaders yesterday to halt the General Assembly's probe of possible ethics violations by Sen. Larry Young and turn the matter over to criminal investigators already looking at his business activities.

But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. rejected the advice last night and said they would allow the legislative investigation to proceed.

In a letter to the Assembly's two presiding officers, Curran said the legislature's ethics committee is not equipped to handle a case as complicated as Young's and would be hard-pressed to finish its work by the Jan. 14 deadline the leaders have imposed.

Instead, Curran said, the matter should be referred to the office of the state prosecutor, which is conducting a criminal investigation of Young's activities.

"The statutory and practical limitations of the Committee's investigative capacity could impair its ability to undertake a thorough investigation of allegations of financial wrongdoing," Curran wrote. "This result would not be fair either to the General Assembly or Senator Young."

Miller and Taylor said that despite Curran's recommendation, they would push ahead with a briskly paced ethics inquiry. They said questions about Young's conduct must be resolved before the Assembly returns Jan. 14 for its annual 90-day session.

"It is important to the legislative process that these matters are reviewed prior to the consideration of legislation during the 1998 Session," the two lawmakers said in a letter to Curran.

In an interview, Miller said: "I need an answer before the session. We're going to deal with this issue before the session as best we can."

Miller stressed that the committee would be looking only at ethics issues, such as whether Young had properly disclosed some of his financial activities, and not whether he might have violated criminal statutes.

"To me, it is not that complicated," Miller said of the ethics inquiry. "The allegations are very straightforward."

Both the ethics committee's and the state prosecutor's inquiries were sparked by an investigation by The Sun. In an article this month, the paper outlined the way Young has used his legislative position to benefit three companies he created.

His LY Group, for example, received 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, a Baltimore Democrat, also has used his taxpayer-funded district office to run his private companies, The Sun reported.

Young has denied any wrongdoing and has said he welcomes the investigation.

The ethics committee has asked Young to appear at a hearing Jan. 6 to answer questions about his activities. A lawyer for Young said yesterday that the senator has exercised his right under state law to keep the hearing closed to the public.

"I think it will allow a full and fair resolution of the allegations rather than create a circus-type atmosphere if the hearing were open," said attorney Gregg L. Bernstein.

The ethics committee is charged with determining whether lawmakers have violated any aspect of the state ethics law, which would amount to a civil rather than criminal infraction.

The committee of 12 legislators looks, for example, at whether lawmakers have traded on the prestige of their offices for personal gain or have filed the appropriate disclosures of their business activities.

An inquiry by the panel can lead to recommendations that a legislator be disciplined within the Assembly or even expelled.

But the committee's work often consists of advising lawmakers informally on how to handle potential conflicts, not on probing a senator's business activities, as the panel has been charged with doing in the Young case.

The ethics committee, as Curran pointed out in his letter, does not have the legal authority to compel witnesses to appear, nor to subpoena documents.

"The lack of compulsory process and the demands of the uncoming Session may preclude the Committee, even with the assistance of independent counsel, from adequately resolving all the questions raised by the allegations," Curran wrote.

In contrast, the state prosecutor's office, working with a grand jury, can issue subpoenas and compel testimony as it examines whether a public official has committed criminal violations such as misconduct in office or misuse of state funds.

Curran's staff at the attorney general's office is assisting the prosecutor's office in its probe of Young. It is not clear precisely which areas of Young's business affairs they are investigating.

Curran noted that if the state prosecutor concludes Young violated no criminal statutes, the General Assembly's committee could subsequently investigate the senator for ethics violations.

This month the panel sent Young a list of 20 possible ethics violations and asked him to submit documents relating to the case by today. But sources said Young's lawyers asked for more time, and the deadline was pushed back until Christmas Eve.

Pub Date: 12/19/97

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