Less room left under Assembly's rug for dirt

March 03, 1998|By Michael Olesker

On the morning the Maryland General Assembly opened for business this year, and Larry Young prepared to take the political 10-count, the following joke made the rounds of the House of Delegates:

"Did you hear about Cas Taylor's opening prayer?"

"No."

'"Thank God it's in the Senate.'"

Nobody needed an explanation. "It" was the business of Young's various conflicts of interest with health firms, and the money he took from Coppin State College without doing any apparent work, and his unseemly muscling for private gain while allegedly doing routine public business - and the gathering of angry Young supporters outside the State House that morning who were preparing to enter the Senate en masse and claim their man was being railroaded.

In that more innocent political era barely seven weeks ago, some still believed Young was an isolated case, and the joke about House Speaker Taylor's opening prayer a reflection of the relief that the House, a model of political purity, could proceed without rancor or distractions.

Good luck.

Barely had the last vituperative voice on the Young controversy faded from the radio talk shows when there were revelations in the House. First it was veteran Del. Gerald J. Curran, reported in this newspaper to have aggressively lobbied officials for a state insurance program that, coincidentally or not, would greatly benefit the wallet of private insurance broker Gerald J. Curran.

Curran insisted he'd done nothing wrong, but chose to go quietly. After an honorable 32-year career in the legislature, he resigned last week, rather than lengthen his (and the House's) public embarrassment and cost a fortune in legal fees defending himself.

And then came the report about Casper R. Taylor himself - a story in the Washington Post that he'd helped a Western Maryland pal win a sweetheart deal on a coal lease. Baloney, said an infuriated Taylor. Routine constituent service, he called it. Though there's no evidence that Taylor profited from the deal, the charge is that the state lost big bucks while his buddy made a killing.

All of this raises a simple question: Where, precisely, is the line drawn between honest political labor and conflict of interest? Or, in the immortal words of former East Baltimore senator and tavern owner Joe Staszak, "Conflict of interest? How does that conflict with my interest?"

There was a time when we assumed conflicts of interest. It was considered part of the game, an unstated benefit of elected office. Just don't steal too much, or too ostentatiously, OK? These folks couldn't live on their paychecks alone, could they? Marvin Mandel was only making $25,000 a year as governor, so he assumed everybody knew his buddies were looking out for him, and what was the big deal as long as he did his job?

Generations of politicians have held fund-raisers to finance their campaigns. Who buys tickets to these things - Pollyannas interested simply in good government, or those assuming that, somewhere down the road, if they buy enough tickets, there's a big construction job or a highway paving contract, or a liquor license or a government position they can count on for their wife's idiot nephew?

"Naturally," one State House lobbyist was lamenting yesterday. "The whole system's greased by favors and influence and who you know. It's always been that way, but now we want to pretend we're shocked by it."

On the day the Senate began hearing of Young's abuses, Sen. George W. Della Jr. glanced up from his desk and declared, "There isn't a rug big enough to sweep this under."

Some think the governor himself hides under that rug. He was ready to take big health care money from the same people handing it to Larry Young - until cooler heads prevailed. He took racetrack money that turned out to be illegal, and pronounced himself "shocked" at the revelation.

When Curran read his letter of resignation, his House colleagues ushered him off the floor with a standing ovation. Some of them wept. They were moved by the specter of a decent man with a generally honorable history who had failed to fully grasp the new political ethos. But maybe they also saw a vision of themselves.

Where is the line drawn? In the post-Watergate mentality, we've all learned to suspect elected officials. Cynicism's our national mind-set. But with the shifting political sands, there are scores of politicians looking in the mirror now and asking, "How vulnerable am I?"

Pub Date: 3/03/98

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