Ethical memory lapse in Annapolis Collins' gaff: Baltimore County senator may co-chair ethics panel, but he needs a refresher course.

July 02, 1998

WHEN the co-chairman of the Maryland General Assembly's own ethics committee sees nothing wrong in violating the state legislature's stated code of conduct, you've got a problem on your hands.

Such is the case with Democratic state Sen. Michael J. Collins of Baltimore and Harford counties. He held a fund-raiser last night; invited guests were asked to respond to his secretary in his district office.

Such an arrangement is strictly forbidden in legislative guidelines drawn up and distributed by the Joint Committee on Ethics, which Mr. Collins co-chairs. Only General Assembly business and "customary constituent services" may be handled

out of these government-funded offices.

And yet Mr. Collins strenuously denied that he had broken his own committee's -- and the legislature's -- ethics standards. It was a lame excuse. Conducting any campaign activities out of your government-paid district office is wrong.

Mr. Collins knows better.

In fact, he recently participated in a discussion on this very point during a session of the special commission reviewing ethics standards in Maryland, led by Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin. Mr. Collins also serves on this special ethics panel.

The strong consensus emerging from that group: Legislators should conduct no private or campaign business from their government offices.

Mr. Collins' gaff, and especially his denial of wrongdoing, tells us much about the need for drastic steps to bring higher standards to the General Assembly.

Lawmakers need firm, clear guidelines on what is permitted and what is not. More important, they need to be held strictly accountable if they step over the line.

Every member of the legislature suffers when someone like Mr. Collins ignores the General Assembly's standards of conduct. The public blames all of them.

Until there is a major change in attitude among state lawmakers, such breaches of conduct are likely to continue -- along with the public's growing outrage.

Pub Date: 7/02/98

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