For the second time in this election year, the Maryland General Assembly finds itself grappling with reports that one of its leaders used his position for personal gain - reports now being examined in an atmosphere of deep public cynicism, partisan sniping and racial suspicion.
"I think we should start talking about combat pay," House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said yesterday.
Today, the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics convenes to learn whether Baltimore Del. Gerald J. Curran blurred ethical lines between his position as chairman of a major House committee and his private role as a broker in lucrative insurance deals with state agencies.
Taylor, a Democrat from Cumberland, said he hopes the most recent disclosures can be investigated and dealt with by a March 2 deadline - but some legislators were beginning to wonder yesterday if their 1998 session would ever escape a widening cloud of embarrassment.
What Del. Cheryl C. Kagan, a Montgomery Democrat, called a "drip, drip, drip" of news and rumor threatens at least a temporary eclipse of a full agenda of other state business before the Assembly and Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
The Assembly's annual 90-day session began Jan. 14 with the hope that the investigation of then-state Sen. Larry Young could be dealt with quickly. Now it finds that the same urgency remains, with the terrain having shifted to the House of Delegates.
For days last week before The Sun disclosed Curran's business deals, legislators, lobbyists and state government officials had been whispering that he was about to be the subject of a newspaper investigation - because, it was claimed by some, the newspaper needed a white target with which to balance its coverage of Young, an African-American expelled Jan. 16 for alleged violations of state ethics laws.
And yesterday, the speculation continued.
"I hear someone else, someone other than Curran, is about to fall," one legislator said yesterday. He had no idea who it might be.
Because both Curran and Young are Democrats, some were hoping yesterday that a member of the GOP would be pulled into the net.
"Can't you get a Republican?" a Democrat asked a reporter.
Two members of the other party were named.
"What have they done?" the reporter asked.
"I don't know. Can't you find something?"
At the same time, lobbyists were peddling stories about several in their competitive fraternity who had strayed into unethical or illegal territory.
"It's going to be hard to keep some degree of sanity," said Del. John S. Morgan, a Republican whose district is in both Howard and Prince George's counties.
Perhaps the most vexing issue beyond allegations of wrongdoing was race - which almost certainly will complicate the case against Curran.
"A lot of Larry Young supporters will sit back and see how the General Assembly handles Curran," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat. "And they will watch to see what consequences are meted out.
"Thinking people will be able to differentiate and there are some differences as to the degree and level of infraction. But some won't be interested in that. They see a racial dimension in everything. I don't," he said.
But, said Del. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a 44th District colleague and Young defender, the racial component is unavoidable.
"It will be a racial matter if it's only an African-American who's penalized so severely," he said. Mitchell suggested the entire Assembly should admit it doesn't know what is ethically appropriate and what is not.
"Right now, we look like we don't know what we're doing. When you have the chairman of the committee charged with handling ethics matters and he's confused, you really need to change the process," he said.
Curran, who has relinquished his chairmanship pending the outcome of the investigation, chairs the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee, which handles ethics legislation.
Meanwhile, talk show callers and hosts yesterday were suggesting that the entire Assembly, the entire government, lives comfortably with conflicts of interest and worse. "My audience is very upset at what it perceives to be a country that has lost its morality," said Ron Smith, a WBAL radio host. "They don't have much regard for government or the media."
A similar feeling emerged yesterday for Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause, who participated in a talk show on WJHU: "People think this sort of thing is what legislators do. They aren't shocked by it. It's perceived as systemic."
Her own perception is different, she said.
"Do I sense that sleaze is everywhere? No. My sense is strong that the presence of money and influence is strong. And my sense is that the ordinary citizen is distanced from the Assembly, so you have this insider-outsider perception."
Taylor said he was beginning to "detest" hearing about such perceptions because they are based, he says, on isolated cases.