Democrats' forum to link fund raising, discussion of health care policy Critics, supporters spar over ethics of event

October 10, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Top-ranking Democrats in the House of Delegates are offering lobbyists and others a briefing on health policy issues for the price of a $150 campaign contribution.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, sent out invitations this week to the "1998 Health Policy Leadership Forum and Fund-raising Reception." The invitations went to, among others, lobbyists who represent clients in the health care field.

The forum will feature a panel made up of four House committee or subcommittee chairmen who deal with health-related legislation. The speaker at the Oct. 28 event in Baltimore will be House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., with Rawlings serving as moderator.

The concentration of legislative power at the forum makes it a draw for anyone with an interest in health care policy. The event appears to violate no laws or ethics rules, but advocates of campaign finance reform said the explicit linking of fund raising and policy raises disturbing questions.

"We think it's an improper use of those public positions that members of the legislature hold," said Ed Davis, a lobbyist for Common Cause in Washington.

Democrats Rawlings of Baltimore and Taylor of Allegany County said yesterday that they see no ethical problem with the forum. Rawlings said he considers it an innovative way to raise money to benefit Democratic candidates while holding a meaningful discussion of the issues.

Rawlings said there is little difference between a single chairman's fund-raiser and one that brings together four chairmen.

"Some people have a problem with us raising any kinds of funds and think the only ones who should be elected officials are rich people," he said.

The proceeds from the fund-raiser will go to Rawlings' campaign fund and to a political committee that contributes to Democratic candidates for the House of Delegates.

Rawlings, who has no opposition in the general election, said the main purpose of the event is to support Democrats who face tight races.

The legislators listed as participants on the panel are Dels. Michael E. Busch of Annapolis, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee; Ron Guns of Cecil County, chairman of the Environmental Matters Committee; Brian K. McHale of Baltimore, the Environmental Matters health subcommittee chairman; and Samuel I. Rosenberg, chairman of the Appropriations health subcommittee.

The combination of a policy discussion and a political fund-raiser is a relatively new technique in Maryland.

Del. John S. Morgan, a Howard County Republican who is a member of the legislature's ethics committee, said he has not seen such an event in Maryland and that the issue has never come before the panel. Nevertheless, he said, it could be seen as "inappropriate."

"They always say you should never use something that is akin to constituent service for campaign contributions," Morgan said.

Davis of Common Cause said combining an issues forum with a fund-raiser has become "quite familiar" in the Republican-controlled Congress over the past few years.

"Certainly, at the federal level, there's no difference between the parties in how they do this," Davis said.

Gerard E. Evans, a leading Annapolis lobbyist, said that if the forum is legal, "it's OK with me."

"It's refreshing that it would be a fund-raiser with something substantive going on rather than idle chat, rubber chicken and watered-down drinks," Evans said.

Pub Date: 10/10/98

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