Higher standards for state legislators Reforms ignored: State prosecutor, campaign financing, lobbyist laws need fixing.

August 09, 1998

IS THE phrase "legislative ethics" an oxymoron? Low public esteem for the General Assembly and recent scandals of lawmakers profiting from their public office make reforms imperative.

Legislators took a sensible step by naming a commission to revamp ethics standards. The panel seems committed to setting out clearer rules of conduct, proposing a sensible method for educating and sensitizing lawmakers to what's required, and stronger enforcement .

Revising the ethics code will clarify for lawmakers the standards of conduct by which they must abide. But other areas need fixing if the General Assembly hopes to improve its public image:

Campaign finance

Incumbents are obsessed with raising campaign funds. Even legislators with no opposition this year are accumulating huge sums. How? By putting subtle pressure on lobbyists to get their clients to ante up big bucks.

This gives the appearance that legislators are beholden to lobbyists and their corporate clients. In such a climate, do average citizens stand a chance of being heard?

Here are some ways to change things:

* Require major campaign contributors to identify their companies and connections to the candidate.

* Require frequent finance reports during campaigns.

* Put these reports on the Internet for quick access.

* Require legislators to file an electronic report before each legislative session on campaign contributors with business coming before the General Assembly.

* Post these reports on the legislature's Web site.

Lobbyists

Close ties between lawmakers and lobbyists spell trouble. Legislators have not done enough to build a protective fire wall.

Full, immediate public disclosure of meetings with lobbyists would help. A ban on taking free meals, tickets or gifts is a must. Tighter restrictions on lobbyists' role in raising campaign funds should be approved.

Every legislative body needs lobbyists to help provide information and present opposing sides of an issue. But this kind of advocacy need not be accompanied by lavish spending to wine and dine lawmakers or currying favor through campaign donations.

State prosecutor's office

In the wake of embarrassing corruption scandals in the 1970s, state lawmakers created an independent special prosecutor. But to ensure that this official didn't get too zealous in rooting out legislative wrongdoing, lawmakers kept the prosecutor's budget meager and denied him key investigative tools.

That was a mistake.

Both former prosecutor Gerald D. Glass and the current officeholder, Stephen Montanarelli, have performed with quiet competence. The office continues, though, to operate with severe handicaps. Legislators must give the state prosecutor greater powers and resources. Weak enforcement lowers public confidence in government.

Needed: Culture change

All these steps matter little without a commitment from legislators to impose stricter standards on themselves. What's needed is a change in the culture that has countenanced improprieties.

Too many lawmakers have privately denounced colleagues for inappropriate actions without taking steps to put a stop to them. They haven't recognized that one bad legislator gives the entire General Assembly a black eye.

Now is the time to demand a stronger joint ethics committee with a mandate to take aggressive steps to educate colleagues on proper ethics, spot potential pitfalls that might arise and force lawmakers to adhere strictly and firmly to the straight and narrow.

Changes in the ethics code and other statutes won't work, though, without a new attitude from our elected state representatives. It is up to them to bring higher standards of conduct to Annapolis.

A crisis in ethics

Today: Last of three parts

Ethics hearing: The Special Study Commission on the Maryland Public Ethics Law, known as the Cardin commission, holds its only public hearing tomorrow in Annapolis (7 p.m., Room 140, House Office Building).

Pub Date: 8/09/98

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