Taylor seeks creation of new ethics office Initiative aimed at helping legislators comply with state law

March 12, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Responding to ethics controversies that have dominated the legislative session, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. proposed yesterday that the General Assembly create a new ethics office to help police the behavior of its members.

The Office of Legislative Ethics Advisory Services -- with a full-time director and support staff -- would work with the Assembly's ethics committee and subject the 188 senators and delegates to what would amount to regular ethics checkups.

Taylor said he was less concerned with catching and punishing lawmakers who break the law than with helping all legislators comply.

"I want to see us improve the advisory and enforcement process so members can deal more consistently with a very complex set of ethics laws," Taylor told a House panel considering his idea.

His proposal came the same day that the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics met to consider a newspaper report that Taylor himself had inappropriately intervened in a Western Maryland land deal on behalf of a friend.

After meeting behind closed doors for nearly two hours last night, committee members said that the report last month in the Washington Post detailed no apparent violations of state ethics law and that the panel will not conduct a formal investigation.

"By the unanimous vote of its members, the Joint Committee concluded that there is no basis for further action in this matter," said Sen. Michael J. Collins, the Baltimore County Democrat who co-chairs the committee.

Taylor, a Democrat from Cumberland, said that his proposal for an ethics office had been prompted by the earlier investigations of two other legislators this year and that he had been working on the idea before his own actions came into question.

His initiative is the third major proposal for strengthening state ethics procedures in recent weeks.

The Assembly is close to final approval of a task force that will undertake a yearlong study of Maryland's ethics laws.

And, at the urging of the ethics committee, Gov. Parris N. Glendening said last week that he would establish another panel to examine the state's health-care procurement process.

The ethics committee recommended that review after examining questionable activities by former Sen. Larry Young involving state health contracts. Young was ultimately expelled by the Senate for ethics violations.

Taylor's proposal calls for hiring an executive director for the new office and an unspecified number of support staff, which he said would cost no more than $200,000. "I think that is a very small price to pay if we can build a strengthened procedure," he said.

The ethics committee currently relies on two attorneys who spend most of their time doing other work for the Assembly. The committee has been criticized by some rank-and-file lawmakers in recent weeks for not doing enough to educate Assembly members about existing laws and rules.

Taylor said he envisioned the staff conducting twice-a-year discussions with each legislator, quizzing them on their business and financial activities in an effort to detect potential conflicts or unethical behavior.

His proposal was endorsed yesterday by other lawmakers, a government watchdog group and the director of the State Ethics Commission, which oversees ethics matters involving other state employees.

"I think it's a good idea," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "He's basically saying there's got to be a filter somewhere in the system to separate the wheat from the chaff."

With both Taylor and Miller in favor, the proposal appears to have a good chance for passage.

Two members of the ethics committee, one Democrat and one Republican, also said Taylor's plan had merit.

Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., the panel's co-chairman, said the idea would strengthen enforcement of state ethics laws, which some surveys have ranked as among the strongest in the nation.

"This really involves a much more pro-active approach," said Montague, a Baltimore Democrat.

"There is a need to have a person who is off to one side and does nothing but ethics," said Del. John S. Morgan, an ethics committee member.

But Morgan, a Howard County Republican, said he was worried that setting up a formal ethics office would create "an us vs. them situation" with legislators.

Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, which monitors state ethics laws, called the proposal a "common sense" approach.

"I think it sends an important message to the citizens of Maryland that ethics issues are taken seriously," Skullney said.

The General Assembly's annual 90-day session, which ends April 13, has been dominated by ethics issues.

In January, the Senate expelled Young after concluding he had committed several violations of state ethics laws by using his official position to help three corporations he set up. Young, who has denied any wrongdoing, remains under criminal investigation by state and federal authorities.

Last month, Del. Gerald J. Curran resigned amid an ethics committee investigation of his insurance dealings with state agencies and businesses with issues before his committee.

Curran, too, said he believed he had not violated any laws but said that he was resigning to protect his family and his health.

Both the Curran and Young investigations were prompted by articles in The Sun.

Taylor came under scrutiny after the Post reported that he had intervened with state officials and an appraiser to help a Cumberland businessman complete a deal involving a swap of land in return for potentially lucrative coal-mining rights.

Taylor said he had no financial interest in the deal and characterized his involvement as constituent service.

Pub Date: 3/12/98

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