Ethics panel discusses changing state laws to better define conflicts Cardin commission also looks at use of legislators' 'resources'

July 01, 1998|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A special commission discussed yesterday rewriting Maryland's ethics laws to more clearly define what constitutes a conflict of interest for legislators and how they may use their state-funded district offices.

The panel, formed to review the ethics statutes, debated the circumstances under which lawmakers should be required to declare a presumed conflict of interest.

After they have made such a disclosure, lawmakers are now required either to recuse themselves from voting on the issue or to assert they can vote impartially despite the apparent conflict.

Panel member Shirley D. Peterson, president of Hood College and former Internal Revenue Service commissioner, said legislators often are called upon to vote on legislation affecting their professions.

But she said that does not necessarily create a conflict of interest.

"Any legislation that affected a class of people -- all teachers, all lawyers -- should be presumed not to be a conflict," Peterson said. "That ought not to be a conflict, in my judgment."

Another panel member, House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican, said a conflict of interest could still exist depending on "how small the class is" that is affected by the legislation.

Peterson said "gray areas" where the nature of a conflict is not clear-cut should be resolved by the General Assembly's joint ethics committee. She said she would like to see a clearer definition of conflict of interest.

"To the extent that it's possible to have clarity, it is in the interests of everyone involved, legislators and the public," Peterson said.

She said it should not be possible for a senator or delegate to vote on a bill that specifically affects the legislator, his or her close family members or a business client.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Baltimore-area Democrat who chairs the panel, said another needed change is a clearer statement in ethics laws that "official resources are to be used for official purposes."

Cardin said legislators need to know they cannot use public resources for political or personal purposes or for the benefit of private entities. He said legislators should not be running personal businesses from their district offices.

But House Majority Leader John A. Hurson, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the "reality is that [legislators] are on occasions going to have to use the resources in Annapolis" for personal or business purposes when they are there.

The legislature appointed the 15-member commission to study its ethics standards in the wake of two highly publicized controversies involving lawmakers this year.

Larry Young, a West Baltimore Democrat, was expelled from the state Senate after he was accused of using his legislative position to generate income for himself and businesses he created. Young, who is under criminal investigation, has said he plans to seek re-election in the fall.

Gerald J. Curran, a Northeast Baltimore Democrat, was pressured to resign from the House of Delegates after he was accused of crossing ethical lines in his insurance business dealings.

Cardin said the study panel will meet again July 14 and plans to hold a hearing Aug. 10 to present proposed changes to the ethics laws to the public for comment.

Pub Date: 7/01/98

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