Legislative ethics under fire in Annapolis Improper conduct: Loose rules, lax enforcement lead too many Maryland lawmakers over the line.

August 06, 1998

SOME RECENT stories in the news: Maryland's highest-paid lobbyist takes the witness stand and testifies in court that state legislators often steer business to favored lobbyists. Two state delegates are absolved of any wrongdoing in their efforts to line up $1 million in state subsidies for a project run by their chief political strategist.

According to the state's ethics arbiters, there's nothing wrong in these activities. Close ties between rich lobbyists and legislators are perfectly legal. Lawmakers' bending over backward to steer state support to their friends and political allies isn't over the line, either.

In fact, the difficulty is deciphering what is considered unethical for members of the Maryland General Assembly these days.

Cardin commission

A panel led by Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin is examining weaknesses in legislative ethics laws, but that group's report is not likely to call for sweeping reforms. Nor do House and Senate leaders seem eager to rewrite the book on how lawmakers conduct themselves.

Yet the situation cries out for action. Already this year:

Larry Young was expelled from the Maryland Senate -- the first such action this century -- for profiting from his public office.

Gerald J. Curran, a 30-year member of the House of Delegates and committee chairman, was forced to resign because he used his public office to gain potentially lucrative insurance contracts.

Two delegates who are firefighters and union members worked tirelessly for legislation that would ban counties from reducing union ranks by privatizing paramedic services. The ethics committee ruled this appropriate.

Public school teachers in the General Assembly freely worked to pass a major pension sweetener bill for themselves. It raised retirement benefits in some categories by as much as 75 percent.

Plenty of gray areas

Clearly, the State House atmosphere is not conducive to tough rules on conduct. Lawmakers have written into ethics and lobbying laws so many gray areas that legislators often must decide on their own what's proper.

Conflicts are inevitable in a part-time legislature like Maryland's. The notion of a "citizen legislature" implies that delegates and senators will spend three months passing laws and the rest of the year earning a living at another trade. This immediately puts a legislator's actions in question: Everything must be scrutinized to ensure that public decisions don't lead to personal gain.

Further compounding matters is the urge of incumbents to press lobbyists for campaign contributions from their clients. Indeed, one lobbyist recently bragged of his ability to direct as much as $100,000 from clients to various campaigns. That may be legal -- barely -- but it leaves the impression of an unsavory linkage.

'Take a walk'

Currently, legislators have two ethics "outs." They can simply declare a conflict exists -- though nothing prevents them from then voting for and working to pass the bill in question. Or they can "take a walk" on a controversial vote. This wouldn't be tolerated in other lines of work.

Enforcement is weak. Only in rare, highly publicized instances, such as the Young case, has the joint ethics committee come down hard on a colleague.

More often, peer pressure is used to rein in lawmakers' conduct. Advisory opinions are issued to give guidance. But they are, after all, merely advisory.

The ethics panel has a part-time staff member and no strong powers to gather information. Likewise, legislators have little to fear from the state prosecutor since they make sure this office lacks manpower and legal muscle to questionable actions aggressively.

No wonder public confidence in the General Assembly remains low. Honest and honorable legislators have, over the years, failed to hold their wayward colleagues accountable. They have let the sins of the few taint the entire institution.

Promising approaches

What can be done? We will examine promising avenues in this series. The Cardin commission seems determined to eliminate hazy areas in the ethics laws and replace them with clearly stated rules of conduct. It also has discussed ways to sensitize lawmakers to the delicate nature of holding a public office and the need to maintain rigorous standards.

But nothing will happen unless legislators themselves decide it is time to change. The cozy culture of lobbyists and lawmakers locked in a financially and politically beneficial embrace is a remnant of the 20th century that isn't appropriate on the eve of the 21st century. The image of self-aggrandizing legislators no longer suffices. Marylanders expect much more of their elected leaders. We deserve better from them.

A crisis in ethics

Tomorrow: Drawing clear lines on legislatures' conduct

Sunday: Reforms that no longer can be ignored

Pub Date: 8/06/98

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