Shameful Annapolis conduct $9,000 commission: Lobbyists enrich Del. Tony Fulton, raising questions of vote buying

January 15, 1999

WHEN two of the biggest lobbyists in Annapolis throw a $9,000 real estate commission to a state delegate, what do you call it? Legalized bribery? An innocent business arrangement?

Try a black mark on the Maryland General Assembly.

Lobbyists Gerard E. Evans and John R. Stierhoff knew that steering a lucrative office-building sale to Baltimore Del. Tony E. Fulton would earn brownie points with the legislator. When Mr. Fulton votes on hundreds of bills affecting Evans-Stierhoff clients, he'll remember this windfall.

The city delegate hasn't previously handled commercial real estate transactions in the state capital. He must have realized what the two lobbyists were up to.

This shameful conduct gives the impression that legislators' votes are for sale. It also suggests lobbyists can use a skewed moral compass to guide their relationships with lawmakers.

Had Mr. Fulton consulted with the legislature's ethics panel, he could not have collected this commission. Obviously, this transaction constitutes a "close economic association" with lobbyists, a clear conflict of interest under the ethics law.

But the same law is so weak that it allows Mr. Fulton to skirt the ethical conflict -- and keep the $9,000 commission -- simply by filing a statement that discloses his relationship with the lobbyists and claims that his objectivity won't be impaired.

Allowing Delegate Fulton to flout the legislature's rules of behavior should not be tolerated. The Fulton-Evans-Stierhoff scandal underlines the need to reform the assembly's ethics legislation. A proposal to tighten existing laws may not go far enough.

Leaders must take actions that prevent lobbyists from corrupting the system -- and hold lawmakers to a far stricter code of conduct.

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