Steps to ethics reform in Assembly

February 26, 1998|By Deborah Povich

JUST when I think we've reached the nadir of public trust in government, political integrity sustains another blow. Now Maryland's General Assembly is mired in the second investigation in as many months into allegations of the ethical misconduct of a state legislator.

Former state Sen. Larry Young was ousted by the Senate last month after the panel found he had violated ethics laws. Now, Del. Gerald J. Curran's business dealings are under investigation.

To some close observers of the Maryland legislature, these revelations came as no surprise. Many legislators encounter conflicts when performing public business. While most handle their conflicts adequately, they do so in a political culture that regards ethical talk as prudish. It is the culture that must change if we expect elected officials' behavior to change.

New laws will not change the political culture. While Maryland's ethics law can and should be strengthened, no sea change of behavior will occur without direction from the top. Ethical standards are set by the legislative leaders.

A decade ago, then-Del. Larry Young was removed as a committee chairman for behavior that then-House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin felt was inappropriate. Mr. Young was holding breakfast meetings with lobbyists during the session and soliciting campaign contributions. Mr. Cardin sent his colleagues a strong message about acceptable behavior by removing Mr. Young from a leadership role.

Years later, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller placed Mr. Young at the helm of a subcommittee that had jurisdiction over the arena where Mr. Young made a living -- health care.

Last summer, Mr. Miller received complaints that Mr. Young was using his office for personal gain. Mr. Miller should have looked into the allegations immediately.

Mr. Miller could have started with Mr. Young's publicly disclosed ethics files. The discrepancy between Mr. Young's financial disclosure forms and his conflict-of-interest disclosures should have set off an alarm. When Mr. Miller failed to hold his colleague accountable, The Sun stepped in with a detailed investigation of Mr. Young's financial dealings. Then, legislators decided to investigate their colleague.

'Hall talk' insight

Annapolis is rife with "hall talk," which, if marketed, could fund every legislator's pet project. While all such talk is not fact, when a presiding officer hears a rumor or is brought a complaint that a member is using his or her office for personal gain, the leadershould ask for a full accounting. If any issues are unclear or questions remain, the matter should be referred to the legislature's ethics committee for investigation.

Recognizing and admitting conflicts of interest are the linchpins of the state ethics law. In both the Young and Curran cases, that first and most important step, disclosure, was missing. Maryland's ethics law is neither vague nor ambiguous, but too often the application of the law appears lacking. Despite Mr. Young's protests, nondisclosure is neither a trivial nor technical matter -- it speaks volumes about a lack of awareness of and concern for ethical matters.

Legislators file two forms that reveal conflicts. One, a financial disclosure form, resides in Towson with the State Ethics Commission. But the ethics commission has no jurisdiction over legislators. It is the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, which consists entirely of legislators, that disciplines lawmakers.

The other forms that legislators are supposed to file disclose presumed conflicts of interest. While the ethics committee reviews the latter disclosures, it can't review what isn't there.

Legislators' financial disclosure forms should also be reviewed by the ethics committee, and discrepancies noted between the financial and ethics filings. Ethics committee staff could be asked to conduct an annual review of these disclosures, and then notify the committee of conflicts that legislators have overlooked. No law needs to change to put this procedure in place.

(The ethics commission in Towson would still need to review the financial disclosure forms for gifts from lobbyists, because the commission regulates lobbying activities. Consolidating the two entities, the committee and the commission, into one location would alleviate the need for duplicate forms.)

The ethics commission makes annual recommendations about changes that are needed in the laws, some technical, some substantive. For these recommendations to be introduced as legislation, the governor's office must give its approval. That rarely happens. Legislative leaders should review the ethics commission's recommendations and introduce legislation that strengthens and clarifies the ethics laws, instead of waiting for the governor, or a scandal, to motivate change.

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