Ethics and the General Assembly What's next?: Legislators must enact tough laws that hold them to higher standards.

January 18, 1998

CONFLICTS OF INTEREST are inevitable in a part-time state legislature such as Maryland's. But as the tumultuous Larry Young saga illustrated, Maryland's General Assembly hasn't done enough to police itself. Consequently, the entire General Assembly -- Republicans and Democrats, whites and blacks -- has lost public support.

Mr. Young's mistake -- parlaying his elected office into lucrative private gain -- got him expelled from the state Senate on Friday. In the process of uncovering Mr. Young's wrongdoing, though, lawmakers exposed the soft underbelly of their ethics standards.

The public has a right to expect better.

Post-Watergate reforms -- triggered in Maryland by the corruption trials of Gov. Marvin Mandel and a host of county officials -- led to changes in how the General Assembly governs itself. An ethics commission was set up to evaluate possible conflicts of interest in state government. A Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics was given the power to make recommendations on potential legislative conflicts. And a state prosecutor's office was created to make criminal investigations of public officials.

But lawmakers didn't want too much reform. They restricted the role of the state prosecutor and continually understaffed his office. They gave the ethics panels little real power or support staff. They tolerated lax behavior by some members, such as Mr. Young, for years.

Now both presiding officers want a blue-ribbon panel to recommend a new set of reforms to strengthen the legislature's procedures for dealing with ethics violations. The General Assembly also needs tougher enforcement.

Right now, any lawmaker can ignore a conflict of interest if he or she makes a public declaration that a conflict exists. Diligent members go further: They refrain from voting or participating in debate.

In a part-time legislature, where every member needs an outside income, there are conflicts galore: Lawyers working on laws that will affect their business; teachers voting on school aid and reforms; administrators working for private companies which seek money or new laws from the General Assembly. In such an environment, much more explicit delineations are required on what's permissible.

Some states have independent watchdog agencies. Others have well-staffed legislative ethics panels with real power. Many states have a special prosecutor's office with the resources to do the job right. Maryland has none of these.

In an election year, the General Assembly must quickly appoint a task force to recommend major changes in public ethics laws. Meaningful reforms must be adopted this legislative session. That's the only way to regain some of the lost public trust. If lawmakers don't act this session, voters could take matters into their own hands in September and November.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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