Playing 'rope-a-dope' with ethics Strategy: Despite three investigations, the General Assembly has chosen to take a defensive, rather than offensive, approach in dealing with the issue of ethics.

The Political Game

March 10, 1998|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

WITH EACH passing day, the Maryland General Assembly looks more like Muhammad Ali in decline.

Battered and helpless against younger foes, the champ covered up and leaned against the ropes, absorbing the blows and hoping for the bell. Ever the wordsmith, he called his strategy the "rope-a-dope."

In similar fashion, Maryland senators and delegates have watched three of their colleagues be brought before an ethics tribunal to face a range of alleged ethical infractions.

In Round One, to be sure, they landed a near knockout blow, flooring popular predictions that they would do nothing: The Senate expelled Baltimore's Larry Young for a series of alleged infractions.

Then Del. Gerald J. Curran was accused of blurring the lines between his legislative responsibilities and private business affairs. With his case pending before the ethics committee, Curran resigned.

Some legislators said they were uncertain what violations, if any, Curran had committed.But assembly leaders decided not to enlighten them -- or the public -- and called off the investigation.

Then the Washington Post asserted that House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. had applied inappropriate pressure on an appraiser in an effort to secure a sweetheart land deal for a friend. That matter is before the ethics panel.

Taylor had been planning to propose a radical change in the way legislators determine if anything in their private business lives conflicts with their legislative lives. The speaker's idea might replace some or all of the current self-policing system with a more active process.

A new system might yet develop, but the Assembly seems content with its decision to convene a study panel to evaluate current laws and procedures. Falling back into a deliberative, defensive posture, it will take most of a year to complete that effort.

Something is missing, according to Kathleen Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland. With scrutiny drawn to them, she wonders, why haven't legislators found a way to do something now?

"The real mystery to me is that it's so clearly in the self-interest of the body to do something," she said.

The Assembly's decision to take its time, she said, shows the "disconnect" between its world and the world beyond the borders of Annapolis.

"It's not good enough to say we disappear here for 90 days. If there aren't any doors or windows to the real world, then we don't have a representative democracy," she said.

Apparently more anxious to show concern, Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced last week that he would add safeguards to the procurement process, put controls on state payments to public officials, and add about $100,000 to the special prosecutor's budget. He, too, called for a study -- of how the state awards health care contracts.

But the governor absorbed a few blows.

Skullney wondered if Glendening had gone far enough.

And 1994 Republican candidate for governor, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, said: "No one is more in need of this kind of input than Parris. Unfortunately, he's three and a half years late. He should have thought more about ethics when he was setting up his pension scam." Sauerbrey referred to pension enhancements Glendening and some of his aides arranged before he left his post as Prince George's County executive.

Oliver North's star rises for Sauerbrey campaign

Maryland might not be as conservative a state as Virginia -- yet -- but its rightward lean apparently is sufficient to make former White House aide and retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North a big fund-raising draw. North comes to Annapolis on March 23 to help Sauerbrey fill her campaign treasury for this year's race against Glendening. North, who lost a 1992 bid for the U.S. Senate in Virginia, was a central character in the Reagan administration's Iran-contra scandal.

Sauerbrey supporters who ante up $500 may attend a photo session preceding the main event, which costs $125 per ticket. The party will be held at the home of Mike Scarborough, a corporate money manager.

Other stars in the GOP firmament have helped Sauerbrey raise about $165,000 in recent weeks. Two GOP governors -- Terry E. Branstad of Iowa and John Engler of Michigan -- and former Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts helped push the Sauerbrey campaign past the $1.5 million mark.

Promoting state tourism by pointing the way

Speaker Taylor convened a breakfast meeting Friday to encourage state officials and Maryland businessmen to promote tourism more vigorously.

Among the pressing needs: A system of clearer road signs directing tourists to attractions such as the Baltimore Museum of Art and Fort McHenry.

That idea was particularly welcome and practical, said Del. Nancy K. Kopp, a Montgomery Democrat. Why can't the signs tell a newcomer -- or even a Montgomery Countian -- how to find the Baltimore Zoo?

A state official rose eagerly to answer her question. He and other officials, he said, had been working on the problem for two years. Federal -- or was it state? -- regulations limit the number of destinations that could be posted in given areas, and other problems have to be considered. Still, the meetings were proceeding well and the likelihood was great that some solution would be coming soon.

One member of the audience, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, found the answer unacceptable: "You're just defending yourself," said the man whose motto was "Do It Now." But, said someone else, it's not really the state official's fault, given all the regulations.

"Yes it is," said Schaefer.

Pub Date: 3/10/98

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