State ethics guidelines are called inadequate Review panel chief urges clearer rules for Assembly members' district offices

June 03, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Greg Garland contributed to this article.

Maryland should give its legislators clearer instructions about the appropriate use of their state-paid district offices, the chairman of a special ethics commission said yesterday.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, head of the panel reviewing the state's ethics laws, also said more clear-cut rules are needed on hiring relatives and using publicly financed mass mailings by state lawmakers.

"I am concerned whether there is adequate guidance about the commingling of public funds with private activities," Cardin, a Baltimore-area Democrat, said at the commission's third meeting. "You have to give clear directions to people on how they spend public funds."

Lawmakers have guidelines established by the presiding officers of the General Assembly on mass mailings and the use of staff, telephones and computers in their state-subsidized district offices.

But it is essentially an honor system, legislative staffers told the commission. Some lawmakers operate their district offices together with a private business -- or out of their homes. It is up to the lawmakers to separate nonlegislative expenses, such as private phone calls, from those for which they are reimbursed by the state.

Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a citizens watchdog group, said she left the meeting with the impression that too much is left to the discretion of individual lawmakers.

"If someone spends more than the $2,000 [a year] allowed on their telephone calls, who complains?" she asked. "Do they have to pay the money back? It becomes clearer and clearer that an awful lot of the limitations aren't real limitations. Too much is discretionary."

Questions about the rules on district offices were raised this year after Larry Young, a West Baltimore Democrat, was expelled from the state Senate for using his legislative position to generate income for himself and businesses he created. Young remains under criminal investigation but plans to seek re-election in the Democratic primary in September.

The legislature appointed a 15-member commission to study its ethics standards after the embarrassment of Young's ouster and the pressured resignation from the House of Delegates of Gerald J. Curran, a Northeast Baltimore Democrat accused of crossing ethical lines in his insurance business dealings. The panel is meeting weekly with a goal of preparing a preliminary report in August.

Yesterday, members finished their review of the ethics laws and discussed expense accounts, meal reimbursements and district office use by the 188 members of the General Assembly.

Panel members agreed the state needs better nepotism rules. Legislators are forbidden to hire relatives as aides in Annapolis, but it is unclear whether they can do so in their district offices.

Legislative staffers also acknowledged that the rules on state-paid mass mailings have caused confusion. Lawmakers are prohibited from using state funds to mail newsletters designed to help their re-election campaigns. But some sent photocopies of an in-house report to their constituents during the recent General Assembly session.

State Sen. Clarence W. Blount, a Baltimore Democrat who is on the commission, said there is a fine line between legislators' official duties and their activities to help nonprofit organizations and other community causes.

Pub Date: 6/03/98

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