Drawing clear lines on legislative ethics Cardin commission: Panel should tighten rules of conduct and get serious about policing lawmakers.

August 07, 1998

FACED with an embarrassing list of ethics violations, the Maryland General Assembly this spring created a commission to recommend changes. That panel, led by Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, can't end the controversy over lapses in legislative conduct.

But the commission appears determined to give lawmakers -- and the public -- clean dividing lines between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

"You can't legislate morality," said Mr. Cardin, a former House speaker in Annapolis. "You can legislate legislative standards."

Policing ethics

The 15-member group has also indicated a desire to get serious about policing ethics. That is pivotal. Maryland's ethics laws are pretty strong: One study placed them in the top 10 of state public-integrity statutes. When it comes to cracking down on legislative conduct, though, Maryland ranks toward the bottom.

It has been nearly 20 years since the General Assembly adopted an ethics code. But lawmakers in 1979 weren't keen on reform. They left plenty of loopholes, murky language and weak enforcement mechanisms.

Part-time legislatures, such as Maryland's, have a special need for well-defined ethics laws. Should teachers vote to boost pensions for themselves? Should attorneys get involved in issues that directly affect their law practices?

Clear ground rules

Maryland lawmakers deserve to know what is expected of them. That calls for unambiguous ground rules:

A "zero tolerance" standard, or close to it, on accepting tickets, meals or gifts from lobbyists.

If a legislator wants to socialize with a lobbyist, the lawmaker should pay for his or her own meal. If a legislator wants to go to a ballgame with a lobbyist, the two should go Dutch. After all, the state provides $30 a day during the session for expenses, plus a $30,000 salary for this part-time job.

No relatives should be allowed on legislative staffs. It sends the the public the wrong message.

No legislator should hold lobbying or administrative jobs with executive-branch departments or local government. There's too much room for conflicts of interest.

Legislators should be strictly forbidden from using the "prestige of office" for personal gain or to aid friends or political backers.

No state-paid office, equipment or services should be used for unofficial, private purposes.

Lawmakers should file disclosure statements listing all sources of income and potential conflicts before -- not after -- each year's General Assembly session. Lawmakers should be required to update these statements as soon as new conflicts arise.

This information must be made available promptly to the public on the Internet.

On issues in which a legislator has a direct personal interest, there is no question that the lawmaker should not vote or participate in the debate. But what about members of professional groups, such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, tavern owners or car dealers?

Seek special rulings

That's a much tougher call. Right now, they are free to work as hard as they wish to boost their groups, even if they benefit. That's not right. Legislators should be required to seek special rulings from the joint ethics committee if they would gain personally from a bill aimed at a broad class of citizens.

What about enforcement? Here's where the Cardin commission can make a huge difference:

Establish a year-round counsel to the ethics committee to give advice to legislators. Each lawmaker should be required to meet annually with the counsel for guidance. The counsel would hold briefings and seminars. Attendance should be mandatory.

The ethics committee must have the power to issue subpoenas for documents and witnesses, grant immunity and launch investigations. It should be fully staffed.

L All rulings issued by the joint committee should be binding.

The joint committee should include a number of members from the public to give fresh perspectives on ethics problems.

Embrace reforms

If top legislative leaders are serious about changing the current attitude in Annapolis, they must embrace such proposals, many of which are gaining support in the Cardin commission.

Indeed, the presiding officers should start implementing the recommendations promptly to lay the groundwork for the 1999 session.

The Cardin panel cannot possibly resolve all pressing ethics matters. But it can help clarify what's expected of lawmakers and suggest a much higher standard of conduct, with ways to enforce that standard. This is a sound approach for senators and delegates to regain the respect of the public.

A crisis in ethics

Sunday: Reforms that the Maryland General Assembly can no longer ignore

Pub Date: 8/07/98

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