More power sought for panel Legislative committee on ethics would subpoena witnesses

Accused would get rights

July 22, 1998|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A study panel is considering a proposal to give more power to a legislative committee that investigates ethics complaints against lawmakers, while also giving legislators more rights to defend themselves in such cases.

The proposal would give the legislative ethics committee power to subpoena witnesses by a two-thirds vote of its members -- something the committee does not have now. It also would include in the law formal protections for legislators accused of ethics violations, giving them the right to present evidence at a formal hearing, to cross-examine witnesses and to be represented by a lawyer.

But a key member of the panel says he isn't comfortable with how the proposal sets out a detailed, step-by-step process within state law that would be used to handle ethics complaints. He said it could be "counterproductive."

"Even where the sanction would be expulsion such a procedure seems to me too lengthy, too cumbersome," wrote Jervis S. Finney, a former U.S. attorney who is on the ethics panel. "A recalcitrant legislator could tie up the committee for many months."

He voiced his concerns about the proposal in a letter to the commission's chairman, Baltimore-area Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, and other members of the panel, which met yesterday.

Finney wrote that Maryland's experience "has shown the benefits of [a] simple informal process" that can lead to swift resolution of an ethics controversy such as the one involving former state Sen. Larry Young.

He was hired as independent counsel to the legislature's ethics committee to lead the investigation of Young, who was expelled from the Senate this year, after the committee found that he used his public office for private gain.

Finney wrote that the detailed procedure for ethics cases outlined in the panel's proposed ethics law changes is an "open invitation to litigation" by legislators confronting ethics charges.

If the proposals are adopted, Finney cautioned, even a minor infraction could trigger a full-blown process that would include preparing a formal summary of the allegation, notices, and a hearing before leading to a finding and recommendation.

Panel member Deborah Povich, public policy director with the Maryland Center for Community Development and former director of Common Cause/Maryland, said after the meeting that some of Finney's concerns may be valid.

But she said the process of handling an ethics complaint is "less subject to manipulation" by legislators if it is clearly spelled out in state law, as opposed to being set by legislative rules that can be easily changed.

"I think some of the process should be in the statute," Povich said. "It's important so the public will have protections, so it's not left up to the whims of the members of the [legislature's ethics] committee."

The panel Finney and Povich serve on is rewriting Maryland's ethics laws to tighten them. It is also dealing with the procedures the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics uses to handle complaints against legislators.

The panel has been fine-tuning drafts of proposed changes to the ethics laws, most of which have been written by staff members with Cardin's guidance. The panel plans to hone its proposals further after an Aug. 10 public hearing, then present them to the General Assembly.

Finney's concerns about including detailed procedures in state law for handling ethics complaints were discussed briefly at yesterday's ethics panel meeting. Cardin said he will hold the issue open through the public hearing and indicated that he thinks some of Finney's concerns have merit.

Among other things, the proposals on the table direct the legislature's ethics committee to conduct a formal investigation if it determines there is sufficient evidence that a significant violation of the ethics laws may have occurred.

If the committee finds "clear and convincing evidence" of an ethical violation, it can recommend "appropriate sanctions" to the house in which the legislator serves or to the presiding officer of that chamber.

Povich said she is pleased with many of the proposals developed by the study panel -- such as requiring legislators to make more timely financial disclosures that will be posted on the Internet.

But Povich said she still feels strongly that citizen members should serve on the joint committee that investigates ethics violations by lawmakers -- one suggestion that has not been included in the draft proposals considered so far.

"We can give the committee guidelines, power and authority, but unless they're willing to act on it, it won't make any difference," Povich said.

Pub Date: 7/22/98

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