2 lawmakers cleared by ethics panel McFadden, Harrison sought state subsidies for aide's project

Ruling upsets activists

Committee decides neither legislator personally benefited

July 28, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

The legislature's ethics committee has concluded that two Baltimore lawmakers did not violate state law by pushing for more than $1 million in subsidies to a project that is headed by their chief political strategist.

In a closed meeting last week, the panel briefly discussed a 7-month-old complaint that Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden and Del. Hattie N. Harrison had inappropriately boosted the development project of a woman who is their campaign treasurer and leader of their political club.

Members of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics decided there was no suggestion either lawmaker had benefited personally, and chose not to conduct a formal investigation.

"Based on the information before us," the co-chairmen wrote McFadden and Harrison, "the joint committee found that the issues raised do not allege any violation of the Maryland Public Ethics Laws that are within the jurisdiction of the joint committee."

McFadden said that he felt "relieved and happy" with the decision.

"We maintained all along that we didn't do anything to violate the ethical rules," he said.

Del. John S. Morgan, a Howard County Republican, said he and his colleagues on the committee were advised that state ethics laws do not specifically address the questions raised about the two lawmakers, both Democrats. Maryland legislators are forbidden from using their official position for personal gain, but no clear standards detail helping friends or campaign workers.

"They were doing things that seemed to benefit a campaign worker, but that is not something the committee can judge," Morgan said.

The decision angered several community leaders, who had first sought an ethics review in December. It also troubled the head of a citizens watchdog group.

"Since when did ethics become only a fastidious and narrow adherence to the letter of the law?" said Kathleen Skullney, director of Common Cause/Maryland.

East Baltimore activist Ornat Erby said he was disappointed that the committee did not spend more time investigating. He maintained that the lawmakers have a conflict of interest in sponsoring legislation that helped Marie Washington, their treasurer and a power broker in their district.

"I believe it, and anyone else reasonable who looked at it would think so, too," Erby said.

During the past four years, McFadden and Harrison have drafted legislation and lined up votes for state grants that went to a $3 million office building that Washington developed largely at taxpayers' expense.

Called Fair Chance, the building east of downtown houses state government offices and a nonprofit job training program run by Washington. McFadden and Harrison have said they draw a clear distinction between her political work and development activities.

This marks the second time questions about lawmakers' conduct were dismissed since the ouster of Sen. Larry Young and the forced resignation of Del. Gerald J. Curran early this year.

In March, the ethics committee found "no basis" to investigate allegations that House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat, had inappropriately helped a friend in a land deal.

Pub Date: 7/28/98

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