Public gives mixed views of ethics plan Lack of involvement by residents called flaw in proposal

Finance disclosure praised

Cardin and panel fine-tuning draft of recommendations

August 11, 1998|By Greg Garland and Michael Dresser | Greg Garland and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A special study commission's draft proposals for improving state ethics laws and rules that apply to Maryland legislators are good, but don't go far enough because they leave ethics enforcement in the control of legislators.

That was the view of some speakers who urged the study commission at a public hearing last night to recommend putting state residents on a joint legislative committee that deals with ethics complaints against lawmakers.

About 40 people attended the hearing.

Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause/Maryland, told the panel that the public will have little confidence in a system of ethics enforcement that excludes resident participation.

"I believe the public has to be part of the enforcement mechanism," Skullney said.

The 15-member commission, chaired by Democratic 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.

The Cardin panel's draft proposals call for strengthening financial disclosures required of lawmakers, tightening restrictions on their outside employment and giving more powers to the joint legislative committee that investigates complaints against lawmakers.

Skullney praised several of the panel's proposals, including a recommendation that a uniform, mandated process be set to handle ethics compliants regardless of how they are referred to the joint legislative committee.

Skullney said she also liked proposals that would require legislators to file more timely and thorough financial disclosures and make the information more easily accessible to the public.

Skullney said, however, that she views public participation on the committee that handles ethics complaints as a key to better enforcement of the rules and more public confidence in the General Assembly.

"Maryland had a pretty good law on the books and we had scandals anyway," Skullney said. "We are going to have an even better law. Are we going to have scandal anyway? It isn't what is on the books, it's what you do with it."

In written testimony, the League of Women Voters of Maryland said it strongly supports many of the changes proposed by the ethics study panel but was concerned that the "draft bill does not provide for public input to the process."

The league had urged the panel to recommend putting members of the public on the joint legislative ethics committee.

"We still believe that such representation will foster greater public trust in the integrity of the General Assembly, and bring different perspective to reviewing problem areas," league President Joan Paik and Vice President Kay Terry wrote.

The panel also heard from an ordinary voter on the subject.

Ann M. Lembo, who traveled from Baltimore to state her case, told the panel that private citizens should be part of the enforcement process. She said citizen members could be trusted to maintain confidentiality, noting that they already do so as members of juries.

"It would send a message that you're not trying to shut out the public," Lembo said.

Others who testified gave the panel's proposals positive reviews, while offering suggestions of how to improve the final product.

Stephen Buckingham, a lobbyist who represents nonprofit organizations, said a member of the public who files a complaint against a legislator with the Joint Ethics Committee should not be required to provide a written affidavit.

Buckingham said lobbyists would not make use of the process to report wayward legislators for fear their clients -- and their own incomes -- would be penalized. He urged the commission to propose a system that would let people file complaints with an assurance of confidentiality.

"I want guarantees it will not come back to bite me," he said.

Del. John S. Morgan, the only Republican House member who sits on the 12-member joint legislative ethics committee, urged the task force to call for greater representation for the minority party -- ideally an equal split -- to avoid perceptions of partisan bias.

Morgan also encouraged the panel to take a stand on the issue of giving the state prosecutor the power to subpoena witnesses and grant immunity -- a measure the General Assembly balked at earlier this year.

"It's a hollow statement unless there's an ability to back up what we might find in our deliberations with criminal prosecution," said Morgan, whose district includes parts of Howard and Prince George's counties.

Cardin said the issue falls outside the scope of the commission's work.

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