Ethics plan limits lobbyists' spending on lawmakers' food Panel recommends $20 meal, drink limit, tightens other rules

August 05, 1998|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

The days of wine and lobbyists in Annapolis may be numbered.

Maryland lawmakers who have grown accustomed to lobbyists picking up the tab for expensive dinners and drinks will have to pay their own way if the General Assembly accepts reforms proposed by a special ethics study commission.

The restrictions on entertainment by lobbyists are part of a wide-ranging series of ethics law changes drafted by the commission, which will hold a public hearing on the proposals Monday in Annapolis.

The panel will meet again Sept. 8 to prepare its final recommendations to present to the General Assembly. Legislators will vote on the proposed changes early next year.

The proposals would strengthen financial disclosures required of lawmakers, tighten the restrictions on their outside employment and give broader authority to the joint legislative committee that investigates complaints against lawmakers.

"Overall, the recommendations the commission has discussed would significantly improve the state ethics law," said Deborah Povich, former executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause/Maryland and a member of the study panel.

"I don't know that there's any magic bullet here," Povich said. "You really have to look at it as a whole."

The 15-member study commission, chaired by U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, was created in the wake of ethics controversies this year involving state Sen. Larry Young and Del. Gerald J. Curran, both Baltimore Democrats.

Young was expelled after the Senate found he had used his public office for private gain, and Curran resigned after the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics decided to investigate whether he had used his office to benefit his insurance business.

Cardin, a Baltimore-area Democrat, said the ethics law has worked well in dealing with problems as they surface. But he said more can be done to prevent them by giving legislators clearer direction of what is expected.

The panel addressed that by drawing "brighter lines" in state ethics law and by proposing the hiring of a full-time legal counsel to advise legislators on ethics concerns and to hold mandatory annual training sessions about the law, Cardin said.

"The overwhelming number of legislators want to do the right thing," Cardin said. "I find more and more getting into trouble because they didn't know or didn't think."

The state's ethics laws are not so much the problem as are attitudes, he said.

"The core problem in Maryland is sensitivity to the ethics rules. Members are just not sensitized as to what's expected of them."

The commission's proposals would have practical effects -- such as prohibiting a legislator from getting a free ticket from a lobbyist to watch the Orioles on a sunny summer afternoon. A lawmaker could get a free ticket to a sporting or cultural event only if it were extended by the event's sponsor.

The proposals include a clear ban on legislators using their publicly funded offices for private or political business and a prohibition against soliciting lobbyists to buy tickets to charitable events or to contribute to such organizations.

Lobbyists could buy a lawmaker food or drink, but anything that cost more than $20 would now be a prohibited gift -- unless all legislators, a delegation or all the members of a committee were invited to a dinner reception.

Another of the panel's proposals would bar someone from getting a job with a state or local government agency after filing to run for a seat in the General Assembly. Those in a public job when they file to run would not have to give up their jobs.

Legislators also would have to file annual financial disclosures by Feb. 1, near the start of the legislative session, rather than on April 30, and they would have to list all sources of income of $100 or more.

The disclosures would be posted on the Internet to give the public easier access to them.

The only real controversy so far is over a measure that is not among the panel's proposals -- putting members of the public on the legislature's ethics committee.

Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, said she considers that a major flaw in what she otherwise sees as an excellent package.

"They can't get past the idea that only the legislature can decide if legislators have misbehaved," Skullney said. "And we are not going to have serious ethical standards and enforcement until they get past that idea."

Skullney argued that the best-written ethics law means little without public trust that it will be enforced. The public will never have confidence in an ethics system that is closed to it and left entirely at the discretion of legislators, she said.

But Cardin and other panel members said legislators have the responsibility under the state's constitution to determine the TC qualification of members to serve in the General Assembly. He said he sees no need to change the ethics committee's structure.

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