General Assembly launches a review of Maryland ethics law Legislative leaders want panel to propose changes

January 28, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

In the wake of the investigation and expulsion of former Sen. Larry Young, the General Assembly's presiding officers are launching a major review of Maryland's ethics law.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said yesterday they will introduce legislation setting up a 15-member commission to study the law and propose changes for the Assembly to consider next year.

While prompted by the Young case, Miller and Taylor said the study is also needed to ensure that the law, some of which dates back 19 years, reflects the increasing pressure legislators are feeling from special interests.

"It's been almost two decades since the current law was enacted," Miller said at a State House news conference. "Since then, business has become more diverse. The issues are more complex."

Added Taylor, an Allegany Democrat: "There are different realities today."

Miller and Taylor said they have no specific changes in mind. Instead, the commission will be asked to consider issues ranging from rules governing the use of taxpayer-funded offices and staff, to the powers and procedures of the legislature's ethics committee.

Under Maryland law, the committee investigates violations of the ethics law, which are civil infractions, and can recommend that the Assembly punish a lawmaker with penalties up to and including expulsion.

It was the committee that investigated Young's business activities after disclosures in The Sun. After closed meetings, the panel concluded that the West Baltimore Democrat had used his public office for personal gain.

The committee's report led to the Senate's Jan. 16 vote to expel Young. Young remains the subject of federal and state criminal investigations.

Miller said the commission will likely consider amending the law to include a procedure for the ethics committee to hire an independent counsel for complex investigations.

In the Young case, the committee broke new ground by hiring former federal prosecutor Jervis S. Finney to guide the probe, but Miller said no guidelines exist for doing so. "We were flying by the seat of our pants," Miller said.

Both Taylor and Miller said the statutes governing conflict of interest have become more important in recent years as a growing number of complex, big-money issues have come under consideration in state capitals.

In addition, Miller said, the cost of a campaign for a seat in the Assembly has soared in the past decade, meaning legislators often raise money from special interests. "Funding has now spun out of control," said Miller, a Prince George's Democrat. "That compounds the problems we're dealing with."

Kathleen S. Skullney, head of Common Cause/Maryland, a group that pushes for stricter ethics laws, said she welcomed the study, but stressed that the Young matter had nothing to do with weak laws. "The whole scandal of Larry Young was absolutely not the function of a dysfunctional ethics law," Skullney said.

Miller and Taylor said they will introduce a bill today to establish the commission, which is to include legislators. Miller raised the possibility of including representatives of the news media and a government watchdog group. Assembly passage of the legislation is virtually certain given the presiding officers' support.

The Senate president also said he hoped to draft a prominent person to head the commission, mentioning Robert C. Murphy, the former chief judge of the state, as a possibility.

Pub Date: 1/28/98

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