Toothless in Annapolis Feeble ethics committee: Panel lacks staff, powers in probe of state Sen. Larry Young.

December 21, 1997

THE CHARADE transpiring in the Maryland State House this holiday season could well be called, "Toothless in Annapolis." A joint ethics committee has been ordered to conduct a hurry-up examination of the business dealings of Sen. Larry Young of West Baltimore. But the panel lacks all the essential tools and powers needed to do the job correctly.

It also lacks enforcement powers. Even if panel members concluded that Senator Young had used his public office to further his private business activities, the group cannot take action against him. All it can do is recommend.

Usually this entails mild rebukes or suggestions that legislators refrain from votes or debates that pose conflicts. The group has no legal staff, no investigators and no budget for a probe. It has no power to subpoena witnesses or evidence. It must depend on the good will of the accused for any documents or testimony.

This system was designed by lawmakers to thwart serious internal inquiries. Legislators don't like the idea of intrusive investigations that question their conduct. That's also why the General Assembly has underfunded the state prosecutor's office over the years and denied that office all the powers it needs to do its job properly.

Now Senate President Mike Miller finds himself in a bind. He wants a report from the committee before the General Assembly's opening gravel on Jan. 14 so he can decide on Mr. Young's status before the annual 90-day session. But he may be asking for the impossible.

With Christmas and New Year's intervening, the panel has little time. Mr. Miller says a lawyer will be hired next week. He or she has a Herculean task. Meanwhile, a far more substantive probe of Mr. Young's business affairs has been launched by the state prosecutor.

Mr. Miller should try another approach -- give the ethics committee all the staff, time and money it needs for an extensive inquiry, while he temporarily replaces Mr. Young on the Senate Finance and Executive Nominations committees. There is plenty of legislative work for Mr. Young to do on other Senate committees.

That would give Mr. Young a chance to conduct his State House business without working under a cloud. It would allow the ethics committee to do its job fully and carefully, without being pressured to deliver a rushed judgment. And it would make a clear statement to citizens that the Maryland Senate takes very seriously possible ethics violations by its members.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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