A 'God-sent' legislator leads Young investigation Respect: Del. Kenneth C. Montague is known as evenhanded, tireless and fair, and regarded by colleagues as the perfect choice to handle the report on the city senator's activities.

January 08, 1998|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

As possible ethics violations by state Sen. Larry Young are investigated in Annapolis, no other member of the General Assembly faces more personal and political pressure than Kenneth C. Montague, the veteran Baltimore legislator who chairs the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics.

Montague might wonder why the fates conspired to give him such a responsibility, but legislative colleagues are uniformly relieved that the task fell to him.

The Democrat's peers say his three-term career as a member of the House of Delegates in Annapolis has led him fortuitously to preside over what some believe is the most important ethics investigation of the past 15 years.

His colleagues call him "God-sent," resolutely fair and tireless -- attributes they say he must have to accomplish a difficult and delicate task in short order. His committee must present its findings by Wednesday, the day the 1998 General Assembly convenes.

"He's nearly perfect for the job," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Washington County Democrat who served with Montague on the House Judiciary Committee as well as the ethics panel.

A lawyer elected to the Assembly three times, Montague, 55, is African-American, as is Young.

"He's African-American, and many in the African-American community feel that they don't get a fair shake when punishment time comes," said Del. Emmett C. Burns, a minister and former official of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Montague's 12-member panel quizzed Young for five hours Tuesday about allegations the senator used his position in the assembly to boost his personal income and to benefit several private business endeavors.

The committee will vote today on each of 20 possible infractions by Young and vote on a final draft report Monday -- a report that could lead to Young losing his committee chairmanships or being disciplined in other ways.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller will decide if Young should be disciplined. The state prosecutor is also investigating aspects of Young's business and political affairs, but the results are not expected for months.

With Montague in charge of the ethics committee, Burns said, no one on either side of the issue should doubt its inquiry will be rigorous, fair and demanding.

"He cuts no slack," said Burns, who sits with Montague on the Judiciary Committee. "If I were standing before him, I would have all my T's crossed and I's dotted, and I would have lain awake many nights contemplating the side issues around the main issues so I could answer all the questions he will ask. I would take nothing for granted."

After Tuesday's long interview session with Young, Montague spoke of the difference between possible violations, set to paper, and hearing from the human being involved.

"You see a real person, and you're going to make a decision that will determine that person's entire future," he said. "It's not something any member of the committee wanted." Montague did not seek this challenge -- he happened to be ethics committee chairman when it arose -- but he sees it as part of his responsibility.

As he put it yesterday: "There are times when a legislator can make a special contribution beyond what most of us do every day. It's just my turn."

Origin of public service

The origin of Montague's commitment to public service lies in Lesotho, a province of South Africa, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer after graduating from Morgan State University.

That experience, he says, was the most important one of his life: An English major in college who had learned auto mechanics from his uncles -- and a man handy at repairing things -- Montague recognized that what he knew allowed him to make an immediate difference in people's lives.

He returned to Baltimore and entered the University of Maryland Law School, after which he opened a practice and joined a number of civic organizations: the Maryland Committee for UNICEF, the Family Violence Council and the House of Ruth, a refuge for battered women, among others. He ran for the state Senate in 1982 from his north central Baltimore district and lost, but did well enough to bring him back for a successful House of Delegates race in 1986. In between, he worked with Mayor William Donald Schaefer's legislative lobbying team in Annapolis.

As a legislator, he has shown a zeal for studying every issue, testing the endurance of some.

"I could always tell when we were settling in for a long winter's night when Ken would reach in his pocket pull out a pen, rock back in his chair, look up in the air and say, 'Well, let's think about this,' " said Poole. "We'd already been thinking about it. I knew what I thought, but Ken was going to make sure I knew what I thought and why. He wasn't afraid to forget dinner or going home for a good night's sleep."

Through all of these debates, Poole said, Montague revealed himself as "very liberal with a big libertarian streak -- very protective of the rights of persons."

'Balancing' public, private

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