'This was democracy working' The moment of truth for ethics committee came late in marathon debate

January 13, 1998|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

In the end, consensus was reached relatively easily.

For the 12 legislators put in the often-uncomfortable position of judging the ethics of a peer, that might have been the biggest surprise of the Larry Young debate.

"The answers came to us," said Sen. Michael J. Collins, the legislative ethics committee's co-chairman. "This was democracy working."

Collins and his fellow members of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics said the moment of truth in their deliberations on the Young case came not yesterday, but late in a marathon 9 1/2 -hour debate Thursday.

After spending hours painstakingly examining the details of charges against the Baltimore City senator and his responses one-by-one, the senators and delegates said they realized that the strongest possible discipline was in order.

When Sen. John C. Astle, one of six state senators on the committee, looked at his notes, he saw the score: Of the 24

original allegations, the committee had agreed by a sizable majority that the evidence against Young was conclusive in 16.

"At that point, people were just looking at each other and we knew, man, this is getting serious," said Astle, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "This was some of the highest drama I've seen in the legislature."

'Crunch time'

Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., the committee's presiding chairman, then instructed the panel that this was "crunch time" and he raised the dreaded e-word -- "expulsion," the harshest punishment the committee could recommend.

Montague was against that action, he told his fellow committee members, but believed the committee needed to take disciplinary action leading to the brink of expulsion.

But after committee members began to talk about where to go, their decisions required only a modicum of debate: strip Young of his chairmanships, his right to even sit on committees, and ask the Senate to denounce him publicly -- an act known as censure that is so rare in Annapolis that none of the members had ever witnessed it.

That done, expulsion became a nearly inevitable next step, committee members recalled.

It was only the Maryland Constitution -- not the arguments of Young or his lawyers -- that ultimately spared the senator from an even greater humiliation.

For delegates to recommend that the Senate discharge a member seemed to defy the constitutional instruction that each chamber holds sole responsibility for enforcing its own rules, many of the six House members on the panel believed.

"It would have been the House telling the Senate how to judge the qualifications of its members," said Montague, a Baltimore City Democrat.

"I don't know if that was determinative, but that was clearly a factor."

With the delegates being put in such a position, the committee took the next closest step, a recommendation that the Senate "consider" a resolution expelling Young.

The vote: 10-2 with Montague and Sen. Decatur W. Trotter, a Prince George's County Democrat, in opposition.

Not a racial issue

Trotter and Montague are the ethics committee's only black members, but both said race was not a factor in their vote.

Montague said, "I worried that this would be the first thing people say -- the two African-Americans voted against this so it must be a racial issue.

"It wasn't."

Trotter said he voted against the measure because he saw extenuating circumstances to some of the most serious charges and considered a few others, such as how Young's office space was apportioned, as "technical" violations.

"There were serious problems with his conduct, but to some degree, it was enabled" by others, Trotter said.

Committee members described their sessions as workmanlike, and their debates as vigorous but healthy, even revelatory.

In a city where most people take their politics with a heaping spoon of cynicism, members emerged from their meetings talking unabashedly about integrity, history and pride.

When the committee unanimously adopted its final report and recommendations yesterday, Collins cried. A retired history teacher, the panel's co-chairman called the committee deliberations "one of the highlights" of his political career.

The debate, the Baltimore County Democrat said, had been honest and not dominated by party politics, regional concerns, race, religion or selfish interests -- with its outcome not dictated by leadership.

"I felt this huge sense of history, a huge responsibility to the institution and I felt a degree of sadness," Collins said. "It doesn't make us gleeful to see someone go down, but I think we will be judged as having done the right thing."

Pub Date: 1/13/98

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