Panel begins review of ethics standards for Md. lawmakers Commission also studying whether Assembly should continue to police itself

May 21, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Is it proper for Maryland lawmakers to conduct private business in state-paid district offices? Should they be required to reveal all clients doing business with the state? Do they face inherent conflicts by working for local or state government agencies?

These are just a few of the questions before a commission that has begun to review the ethics standards for Maryland's part- time legislature.

Task force members say they will concentrate in coming weeks on the rules governing the balancing act between legislators' public duties and private occupations.

The 15-member panel, appointed in the wake of the ethics scandals that embarrassed the General Assembly this year, has met twice and plans to conduct weekly sessions with a goal of preparing a preliminary report in August. It is charged with the first wide-ranging review of the state's ethics laws in almost two decades.

"It's clear we're going to have to establish priorities," said U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore-area Democrat who is chairing the commission.

"The areas that jump out are the nonlegislative relationships -- everything from employment, consultant relationships to gifts and family income," he added. "They're all related to the same problem: How does a part-time legislator reconcile the inherent conflicts?"

The other central question, Cardin said, is whether the General Assembly should continue its self-policing tradition by having a legislative committee investigate ethical lapses.

Common Cause/Maryland, a citizens watchdog group, has been pushing for an independent office to enforce the ethics laws. But the legislature has resisted such proposals. An attempt by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. to hire a full-time lawyer to counsel legislators failed in the final days of the recent session.

The task force heard conflicting arguments Tuesday on how much reform is needed after two veteran Baltimore lawmakers were caught in allegations of ethical improprieties. Sen. Larry Young was expelled for using his office for personal gain, while Del. Gerald J. Curran resigned amid reports that he crossed ethical lines in his insurance business dealings.

Kathleen S. Skullney, director of Common Cause/Maryland, urged more independent oversight.

"Right now, the legislative committee doesn't even let the public in when they're doing serious stuff," she said. "And if they're doing this on behalf of the public, the public has got to know what they're doing."

But Alan Rosenthal, an expert on legislative ethics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics in New Brunswick, N.J., said the in-house committees live up to their responsibility. "If anything, they've been pretty harsh," he said.

Before addressing the thorny enforcement question, task force members say they want to determine whether state law clearly defines all potential conflicts the 188 part-time legislators face -- and what to do about them. Maryland law requires legislators to file forms disclosing possible conflicts; having done that, some lawmakers feel free to cast votes on matters close to them.

"I'm not sure disclosure is sufficient," said Deborah Povich, a former Common Cause/Maryland director and member of the commission.

Pub Date: 5/21/98

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