In Annapolis, is ethics a four-letter word? State House: Members of the legislature badly need to take their conflicts of interest more seriously.

March 22, 1998

WHEN WILL it end? That plaintive plea is a common refrain from legislators in Annapolis. One ethics controversy after another keeps popping up.

The latest involves Del. Nathaniel Exum, who has applied heavy pressure to Prince George's County officials to gain a waste-dumping discount for his employer. It helps immensely that in Annapolis he oversees bills affecting county government.

Most citizens have no trouble identifying that as a conflict of interest: Mr. Exum is using his public office to benefit his private employer's bottom line. Yet the General Assembly's ethics committee can't find time to examine this matter. Members are too busy with other duties as the April 13 adjournment approaches.

Apparently the ethics panel has shut down its operations for the remaining month of the legislative session. Lawmakers need not worry about anyone questioning their conduct. The ethics panel has passed the buck.

Furthering the panel's weak-willed image, it sent a letter to lawmakers opening the door for all to vote on a pension sweetener bill -- even though a large number of legislators could see their own pensions rise a whopping 60 percent or 66 percent, depending on how they vote. Instead of taking a hard stance against flagrant conflicts, the committee wimped out.

It also failed when it allowed two firefighter-legislators to sponsor and vote for a bill aimed at stopping counties from privatizing fire-fighting services. Dels. James E. Malone Jr. of Baltimore County and Brian R. Moe of Prince George's County have direct private interests in seeing this bill passed. Yet the ethics panel has said it is all right for them to lobby colleagues and vote as long as they file a disclosure statement.

That is unacceptable. The conflict of interest remains. It cannot be erased. But lawmakers refuse to face up to it. No wonder the General Assembly gets so little respect.

There are signs of hope. Top legislators insist Mr. Exum's case will be heard after April 13. A study of ethics practices starts this spring. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has budgeted more funds for the state prosecutor's work.

And House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. has backed a bill to hire an ethics counselor to meet with lawmakers twice a year.

The counselor's job: to sensitize legislators to proper ethics and help them fill out disclosure forms in more detail.

These are important small steps. It will take a continuing commitment from top leaders to shake the legislature out of its ethics malaise.

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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