Panel OKs revisions for ethics laws Taylor, Miller vow to help get proposals approved intact

'Very clear lines'

Group has worked on recommendations since the spring

September 09, 1998|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A special study panel approved wide-ranging recommendations for rewriting Maryland ethics laws yesterday, and the state's two top legislative leaders promised to work to get the General Assembly to pass the group's proposals intact.

The study panel, headed by U.S. Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore-area Democrat and former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, has been working since early May on the proposals, which seek to tighten the ethics code for legislators and change the way business is done in Annapolis.

"I'm very pleased," Cardin said. "I think we have created very clear lines that legislators can understand. These are clear, common-sense [proposals] and will prevent members from getting themselves into trouble."

Among other things, the proposals would disqualify legislators from voting on issues in which they, their employers or business partners have a direct economic interest. They would be barred from doing consulting work or taking other jobs in state or local government.

The proposals would ban the practice of lobbyists picking up legislators' dinner tabs and would prohibit lawmakers from receiving all but token gifts, such as T-shirts or baseball caps.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said they support the panel's recommendations.

"I think it's a wonderful product," Taylor said. "I think Congressman Cardin and the entire committee are to be commended. I intend to introduce the bill as it's drafted and I feel quite sure that it will develop a very large consensus."

Miller also praised the panel.

'A very fine job'

"I think they've done a very fine job," Miller said. "They touched on a number of areas and tightened up areas that had been subject to different interpretations in the past."

Miller and Taylor said they will implement some of the panel recommendations immediately -- those that do not require changes in state law and can be done through changes in administrative rules and regulations.

"Everything we can do administratively, I want to do immediately," Taylor said. "I want the new legislature to have the benefit of all these ethics enhancements."

Taylor said he expects a full-time ethics legal counsel to be selected before the General Assembly convenes in January. He said he wants to start searching for someone to fill the position as quickly as possible.

Taylor noted he had proposed legislation creating such an "ethics counseling office" during the 1998 legislative session. The bill died in the Senate.

The 15-member study commission was created in the wake of ethics controversies this year involving former state Sen. Larry Young and former Del. Gerald J. Curran, both Baltimore Democrats who left the General Assembly after their activities were detailed in articles in The Sun.

The Senate expelled Young after it concluded that he had been using his public office for private gain. Curran resigned his seat in the House of Delegates after the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics decided to investigate whether he had used his office to benefit his insurance business.

The study commission voted 14-0 to approve the proposals after a four-hour debate and votes on a variety of amendments. One member, attorney Jervis S. Finney, had to leave shortly before the meeting concluded and the final vote was taken.

Compromise

The final package was a product of compromise among panel members.

"This was the art of the possible," said Deborah Povich, a panel member who is the former executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause/Maryland. "This was the best that can be done, and it is a significant improvement."

Povich had fought unsuccessfully to include members of the public on the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, which handles ethics complaints against legislators. The joint committee is now made up of six members each from the House and Senate.

At yesterday's meeting, Povich proposed changing the committee structure to consist of eight lawmakers and four members of the public who would be appointed by the presiding officers and minority leaders of the House and Senate.

"It is a model that is used in New Jersey," Povich told the panel. "I didn't make it up. They've had it in New Jersey and feel it is very effective."

But panel member Sherry Bellamy, who is president and CEO of Bell Atlantic-Maryland, said the public is already represented through legislators serving on the joint committee who are elected by their constituents.

"There's been nothing to suggest this body can't police itself," Bellamy added.

In the end, Povich was able to garner only one other vote to change the committee structure -- that of Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat caught up in a tough re-election race. As Senate chairman of the joint ethics committee, it was Collins who argued the case for Young's expulsion on the Senate floor in January.

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