Ethics aside, Assembly has other big problems

March 08, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

BLAME IT on El Nino. What else could explain the downpour of ethics controversies drenching members of the 1998 Maryland General Assembly?

Two senior leaders have resigned or been expelled; the House speaker's role in a land-swap deal is under scrutiny; two more city legislators face questions about pushing state aid for an office building being developed by a political power broker.

No wonder the mood is so foul.

In recent weeks, delegates have bemoaned the fate of Gerald J. Curran: "Poor Gerry," they keep saying. He didn't do anything wrong. He's being targeted just to satisfy a media feeding frenzy that started with The Sun's expose on Larry Young (who was eventually expelled from the Senate).

It's reminiscent of the days not so long ago when delegates bemoaned the fate of John S. Arnick, who left his House seat for a district court judgeship -- only to run into a firestorm for some boorish and derogatory remarks about women that forced him to resign. (He later staged another political comeback that returned him to the House of Delegates.)

"Poor John," was the wail from his former colleagues back then. He didn't do anything wrong. He didn't really mean the nasty things he said about women.

The public, though, knew better. He didn't deserve a place on the bench, based on his biased comments. He lacked judicial temperament.

Curran's misdeeds

Similarly, Gerald Curran had no business remaining in the legislature. He used his public office to pressure state and local officials for insurance deals that would net him fat broker fees. He tried it in Baltimore County and was shown the door. He finally got state officials to help pave the way for these lucrative insurance contracts.

It was an abuse of office. It's the kind of conduct legislators should avoid at all costs -- using their elected posts to pad their private-sector incomes.

Yet Mr. Curran still doesn't think he did anything wrong. That view is shared by colleagues who talk of "poor Gerry."

Next, delegates may start mumbling about "poor Cas" Taylor, who went to bat for a good friend in Western Maryland to seal a land-swap deal in Garrett County.

Mr. Taylor did not personally profit from this swap. He and his supporters don't understand why the legislature's ethics committee should examine such contretemps. They have lost sight of the fact that perception is often more damning than reality.

Citizens want tough ethics standards that would involve a strong, well-staffed ethics panel with real power. Giving that panel teeth and elevating its status as an arbiter of legislative conduct is what the public expects.

However, that's not what legislators expect. Legislators want a weak ethics committee that acts only on the most egregious incidents. They fear a runaway committee that might go after any lawmaker for any reason.

Recent ethics storms deflect attention from far bigger problems that are eroding trust in the legislature: the pervasive roles of lobbyists and fund raising.

Lobbyists continue to ingratiate themselves with lawmakers, finding ways around strictures on wining and dining. They are happy to befriend lawmakers and shower them with favors.

In return, the lobbyists can count on these legislators when special-interest legislation is heard. Some lobbyists brag about having clusters of legislators in their pockets.

This lobbyist power comes at a steep price -- the price of purchasing expensive blocks of fund-raising tickets. If these lobbyists want friendly legislators, they must have their clients buy more and more fund-raising tickets to functions that used to cost $25 but now sell for $250 or even $500.

Some legislators are amassing huge sums of campaign funds this way. The implicit message is clear: Sell a block of tickets or see your lobbying power diminished. It is a corrupt bargain -- for the lobbyist and the legislator.

Too many votes are predicated on this odious arrangement. Too many legislators and lobbyists evade the rules to continue their parasitic relationships.

Do all legislators and lobbyists have such low standards? Of course not. But their failure to clean up the situation and put down clearly defined lines of acceptable conduct lets the less reputable members of their professions tarnish them all.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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