Young was probably one of a kind in Annapolis

January 25, 1998|By Elise Armacost

LARRY YOUNG was nowhere to be seen in Annapolis last week, but his ghost hovered in the halls of the State House, troubling lawmakers trying -- however imperfectly -- to do the right things.

Aloud, they pronounced that episode blessedly done with. Quietly, they confided annoyance that it's not really done with, not as long as people think the only difference between them and Larry Young is that he got caught.

''People have a jaded attitude toward all of us, and rightfully so,'' mused Del. Michael E. Busch, an Annapolis Democrat and chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, whose record is clean as a Scout's. ''You can't turn on the TV without seeing some [politician] in trouble.'' Still, it rankles, this ''everybody does it'' argument. ''There's not another case around like Larry Young. I can think of maybe one other [that I suspect].''

Critical assessment

You might dismiss this as a politician's distorted view of his own world, except that those familiar with the Annapolis political scene -- including its critics -- agree. Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a watchdog group that sniffs out improprieties the way a beagle goes after a rabbit, doesn't believe the General Assembly is full of Larry Youngs, partly ''because you couldn't possibly run a government if everybody was doing that. I have to believe the majority of members do care about [overt misuse of public office]. I am interpreting their actions'' -- their swift expulsion of Mr. Young -- ''as a signal that they care.''

So things are not as bad as we fear. Bribery, extortion, kickbacks -- acts bordering on the criminal associated with the names Mandel, Agnew, Anderson and now Mr. Young -- are rare in Maryland today.

Our cynicism stems from the failure to separate such outright abuses of office from everyday ethical dilemmas. These fall into two categories. The first involves lawmakers' relationship with lobbyists and other special interests. The second is the inevitable product of part-time legislators who have other occupations and thus face often-gray decisions about when certain business relationships constitute an ethical breach.

For example, a lawmaker works in a midlevel position for a health-care company that stands to gain business from legislation. If he discloses the relationship, can he vote on it? What about a legislator/farmer who's against proposed restrictions on how fertilizer may be applied to fields? On the one hand, his agricultural constituents expect him to represent them; on the other, new regulations may cost him personally.

Such quandaries are light years removed from Mr. Young, who appears to have set out to use his office to enrich himself. That is not a conflict, but a blatant misuse of public office.

Despite the distinction, the Young situation will prompt cries for ethics reform, which usually means more rules. But Maryland's ethics statute already includes more rules than many lawmakers can count, some senselessly convoluted. Consider:

Lobbyists must disclose the gift of a ticket worth more than $15 TC to a legislator, but they can give up to $75 worth of tickets to the governor or comptroller before disclosing. When they buy a legislator a meal, they must disclose when the tab comes to at least $15; the figure drops to $1 if the dinner partner is the governor or comptroller. Meanwhile, the recipient -- no matter which branch of government he or she belongs to -- must disclose any meal or ticket worth more than $25.

John E. O'Donnell, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, says there are more laws like this needing clarification. Others require strengthening. Common sense says the law allowing elected officials to accept tickets to events in a ''ceremonial'' role was intended to lend official cachet to functions. But it has been abused relentlessly, with lobbyists routinely handing lawmakers fistfuls of tickets to Washington Wizards games.

Disclosure not enough

More important than fiddling with the rules are changes in administration and attitude.

The former means ''you don't wait for someone to scream,'' says Mr. O'Donnell. ''Some people think they can disclose, and everything's fine.'' Perhaps the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics should take a closer look at situations where, disclosure or no disclosure, a lawmaker should not be voting.

The latter means that lawmakers try harder not just to understand the rules, but to do what's right in spite of the rules. Many do, but not all.

Ethics should not be a game, where clever players try to stay just within the law.

But it simply is not possible to eliminate all apparent conflicts of interest in a citizen legislature. We must save our concern for serious conflicts and signs of undue influence, and our outrage for behavior like Larry Young's.

Elise Armacost is an editorial writer for The Sun.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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