Lobbying for some restraint in Md. Ethics panel may limit lawmakers soliciting lobbyists' donations

'A great, great problem'

July 15, 1998|By Greg Garland and Thomas W. Waldron | Greg Garland and Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Troubled by Maryland lawmakers soliciting lobbyists and companies for donations to their favorite charitable causes, a special ethics study commission is likely to propose banning the practice.

The issue arose as the state panel chaired by U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin met yesterday to discuss proposals for changing Maryland's ethics laws.

The fund-raising solicitations by lawmakers are regarded as a long-standing problem within state political circles. Many lobbyists complain privately that legislators pressure them, or their clients, to give to lawmakers' favorite causes, ranging from hospital fund-raising drives to inner-city basketball leagues.

Most panel members said yesterday it is wrong for lawmakers to use the prestige of their positions to tap lobbyists or companies doing business with the state for such contributions.

Panel member Helen Koss said that could be seen as coercion to contribute. "I think it's a great, great problem, really," said Koss, a former state delegate.

Another panel member, Shirley D. Peterson, president of Hood College and former Internal Revenue Service commissioner, shared Koss' dim view of the practice.

"I think it is not appropriate for a legislator to be approaching a lobbyist and saying, 'Will you please give $25,000 to my whatever?' " Peterson said. "It's not appropriate."

The legislature created the 15-member commission to study its ethics standards in the wake of two highly publicized controversies involving lawmakers this year that exposed weaknesses in the state's ethics laws.

The panel's recommendations will be presented at a public hearing Aug. 10. The General Assembly will consider the panel's final recommendations when it reconvenes early next year.

At yesterday's hearing, panel member John R. Stierhoff, a prominent Annapolis lobbyist, said there is "increasing discomfort among the people who lobby legislators" over solicitations for nonprofit groups.

But Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat who serves on the panel and is a co-chairman of a General Assembly ethics committee, said it is hard for legislators to say no if a school principal or someone with another group calls and asks for help in raising funds for a worthy cause.

Collins said schools are encouraged to get corporate sponsorships for their activities and "legislators are confronted more and more" with calls seeking their help in finding businesses willing to offer financial support.

Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, said nothing prevents legislators from referring such callers to business contacts, but legislators should not be soliciting contributions from lobbyists or companies with interests before the state.

Peterson said a legal prohibition could make legislators' lives easier. "We're trying to help you," Peterson told Collins. "We're trying to get that monkey off your back."

Among those who have solicited lobbyists on behalf of nonprofit groups is House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

For example, he has continued a tradition begun by his predecessor, former Del. R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., by holding an annual charity golf tournament to which many Annapolis lobbyists are invited, at a cost of more than $100 a round.

For legislators who hold secure seats in the General Assembly, raising money for such endeavors may be as important to them as amassing funds for their own re-election efforts.

"Sometimes it's more important for us to be part of something they hold near and dear to their hearts," said one lobbyist who is routinely solicited by legislators on behalf of charities.

But Taylor, interviewed after the meeting, said he sees nothing wrong with lawmakers raising charitable donations, calling it a good use of a legislator's prestige.

"If there is a consensus that it creates some ethics problem, then I would say let's get rid of it," said Taylor, a Cumberland Democrat. "But for the life of me, I can't see what kind of problem this creates."

In an extreme example, former state Sen. Larry Young solicited contributions from several health care concerns for a religious revival in Baltimore and for a group that held seminars on issues related to health care for blacks.

Young's solicitations stood out from those of other legislators because he essentially controlled the nonprofit groups that received the contributions.

The West Baltimore Democrat was expelled from the Senate after he was accused of using his legislative position to generate income for himself, as well as businesses and the nonprofit groups he created.

He is the subject of criminal investigations by state and federal authorities.

The Young case was one of two ethics controversies confronting the General Assembly this year.

The other involved Gerald J. Curran, a Northeast Baltimore Democrat, who was pressured to resign from the House of Delegates after he was accused of crossing ethical lines in his insurance business dealings. Curran's resignation did not have anything to do with soliciting charitable contributions.

Pub Date: 7/15/98

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