Bill allowing state to collect money from tobacco industry clears panel Measure is designed to undo 1997 court ruling

March 27, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Legislation that would help the state collect billions of dollars from the tobacco industry cleared its first hurdle in a Senate committee yesterday, but only after two members of the panel declined to vote amid concerns about conflicts of interest.

On a vote of 6-3, with two abstentions, the Judicial Proceedings Committee approved a measure designed to undo an adverse ruling last year by the judge in the state's lawsuit seeking $13 billion in damages from cigarette manufacturers.

"This bill is the right thing to do for us to have the ability to hold the tobacco manufacturers accountable for the deceit they've practiced for the last 40 years," said state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., the bill's chief proponent.

The committee action was the first vote on the bill, which is fiercely opposed by the tobacco industry -- along with some business organizations -- which says it would unfairly rewrite the rules in the middle of a pending legal fight. It faces another key vote in the House Judiciary Committee that is expected today.

Before the vote, in an unusual piece of Annapolis drama, the committee's chairman, Sen. Walter M. Baker, announced he would have nothing to do with the bill and left the room.

Asked about his decision, Baker said: "I don't want to have anything to do with the bill."

He declined further comment.

But committee members said Baker was concerned about rumors that had him agreeing to support the legislation in exchange for a commitment by Gov. Parris N. Glendening to appoint Baker's son or his law partner in Elkton to a judgeship.

His son, Stephen J. Baker, is on a list of five nominees for a District Court judgeship in Cecil County. The senator's partner, Dwight E. Thomey, is one of four nominees for a Circuit Court judgeship. Both lists are before the governor.

Glendening, who supports the legislation, emphatically denied that any such deal existed.

"That's absolutely outrageous," he said. "The only ones who would probably say something like this are people desperate to defeat this legislation."

Also not voting was Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., who is employed by the law firm of Peter G. Angelos, the Baltimore attorney who is handling the state's legal case against the tobacco industry.

The bill, if enacted, would help the state recover what could be billions of dollars in damages. Under the terms of its contract with the state, Angelos' firm is entitled to 25 percent of any recovery.

While Stone acknowledged he appeared to have a conflict of interest on the bill, he said he had filed the appropriate disclosures with the legislative ethics committee and felt free to vote on the matter.

"I think there is an apparent conflict," said Stone, a Baltimore County Democrat. "But the public interest is more important."

He said he might vote on the bill on the Senate floor and probably would have voted for it in committee had his vote been needed.

Sen. Leo E. Green, a Prince George's Democrat and the panel's vice chairman, said he hoped to work with Curran and legislators over the weekend to craft amendments to make the bill palatable to the full Senate.

The negotiations will likely center on Angelos' fee, which is seen as too high by many legislators.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and others said the bill will not pass the Assembly without a provision to cut the fee for Angelos, who is also the majority owner of the Baltimore Orioles.

Pub Date: 3/27/98

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