Miller's motive in inquiry: survival Senate chief's lead in Young case seeks to protect party power

December 21, 1997|By C. Fraser Smith and Thomas W. Waldron | C. Fraser Smith and Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

When Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller ignored the advice of the state attorney general last week and pressed forward with the legislature's ethics probe of Sen. Larry Young, Miller had at least one strong political motivation -- survival.

His own survival as Senate president and the re-election of his Democratic allies.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. advised Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. on Thursday to abandon the Assembly's ethics probe of Young and leave the matter to the state prosecutor's office, which is already investigating the Baltimore Democrat's business affairs.

But Miller, who has taken the lead role in the matter because it involves a member of his chamber, is determined to muffle the criticism produced by Young's difficulties before it drowns out the substantive work of the Assembly.

To do so, Miller must have an ethics committee report in time to take action before the General Assembly begins its annual 90-day session Jan. 14, some legislators say.

The stakes are particularly high for Miller, who has been Maryland Senate president for 11 years -- longer than any of his predecessors.

Miller has been urged by many colleagues to take swift, decisive action against Young. But he has resisted such a course until he can hear Young's side.

"I treasure my ability to keep my ear to the ground, so I can hear what my senators as well as my constituents are saying," Miller said of the many comments he has heard in recent weeks critical of Young. "But at the same time, as a lawyer, I treasure certain fundamental rights that our ancestors treasure. Senator Young is entitled to a hearing."

The ethics committee's and the state prosecutor's inquiries were sparked by an investigation by The Sun. In an article earlier this month, the paper outlined how 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 an 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.

And last week came reports that the owner of a Baltimore ambulance company bought a $24,800 Lincoln Town Car for Young two years ago and the senator, again, made no disclosure.

Young has denied any wrongdoing in his business activities and has said he welcomes the investigation.

Grounds to act

Miller hopes even a foreshortened ethics probe will give him sufficient grounds to act -- either to absolve Young of alleged improprieties or to discipline him.

Miller could strip Young of two key chairmanships -- of the Senate Finance Committee's health subcommittee and of a panel that reviews gubernatorial patronage appointments -- while the full Senate could vote further punishment, ranging up to expulsion.

Implicit in Miller's demand for action by the ethics committee is the idea that his grip on his cherished presidency will be weakened if he hesitates.

It is widely believed that Miller would court defections by his Democratic colleagues if he does not show Marylanders that he is determined to keep the Senate's integrity intact. Adding to the pressure on Miller is the fact that he did not take action earlier despite knowing for months the general outline of Young's business activities.

It is not far-fetched, lawmakers say, to imagine a Senate mutiny if Miller is perceived as mishandling the Young case. Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell of Baltimore County and, perhaps, Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman of Baltimore City and County are considered potential rivals to Miller.

Meanwhile, Republicans are strong enough in some rural and suburban districts to take more Senate seats in next year's election, leading Miller to mount an unprecedented, $1 million fund-raising drive on behalf of endangered colleagues.

Democrats control the Senate by a majority of 32 to 15. Miller would not be happy if an appearance of scandal caused that margin to be significantly reduced.

Demands on him come from the House of Delegates as well. The fear is that scandal could lead to a housecleaning by voters.

"It really has an impact among those who mistrust us -- what we do and how we do it," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat.

Extended fallout

Miller's newfound ally, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, also could face some of the fallout of the Young affair. Young has been one of Glendening's major backers in Baltimore, one of the three jurisdictions where the governor built a sufficient lead to defeat Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey in 1994.

"This is the best Christmas gift Ellen Sauerbrey could have gotten," said a Democratic operative who requested anonymity.

Thus, Miller's dilemma is vexing and many-sided. But the LTC consensus among lawmakers is that he will be able to handle it.

"Miller's no dummy," said a legislator who requested his name be withheld. "He knows what this has done to everyone. I believe he will act to preserve the honor of the Senate."

The Young case has consumed much of Miller's time in recent days, with his high-profile disagreement with Curran and last week's decision to expand the ethics inquiry by bringing in an outside counsel.

"These little nails keep popping up every day that I have to pound down," Miller said.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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