Billingsley, regents chief, offers services as lobbyist

Glendening ally vows to avoid conflicts

January 28, 1999|By C.Fraser Smith and Thomas W. Waldron | C.Fraser Smith and Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Lance W. Billingsley, chairman of the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents and one of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's closest political friends, has begun offering his services as a lobbyist on behalf of clients with business before the General Assembly.

Billingsley, 58, said he is not planning to leave the unpaid regents post from which he directs policy making for College Park, 10 other university campuses and two research institutes with a total budget of $2.2 billion.

"Unless I'm missing something," he said, "there's nothing that says I can't lobby. I don't think being the chairman of the regents means I would have more influence than anyone else. Sometimes I think I have less."

He said he would take extreme care to avoid any conflict with his role as regent.

As a corporate representative in search of favorable action on legislation or procurement matters, Billingsley's relationship with Glendening could create the appearance of special consideration, as it did when the two men were allies in Prince George's County, which is home to both.

The potential for conflict could be greater because Billingsley serves on the board of the University of Maryland Foundation, a university fund-raising arm, and on the board of the University of Maryland Medical System in Baltimore, a private, nonprofit entity -- both of which have governmental concerns.

The prospect of Billingsley as lobbyist was troubling to state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, an old friend and political ally of the regents chairman.

"I think it's going to be very awkward, to say the least," Miller said. State lawmakers, he said, accord a special authority to Billingsley in his official capacity, and that luster would inevitably be there for him as a lobbyist.

The Board of Regents might have the most cause for concern, according to Robert M. Stern, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Council on Governmental Ethics Laws. "It could dilute their clout to have their president lobbying on other things," he said.

Stern said it is probably fine for someone of Billingsley's stature and professional experience to become a lobbyist -- but the Board of Regents might wish to have a chairman whose full attention is devoted to its agenda.

News of Billingsley's plans apparently came as a surprise to the governor's office. Ray Feldmann, the governor's press secretary, said he was unable to reach Glendening late yesterday.

No ruling sought on move

Billingsley said he had not sought a ruling on his plan from the State Ethics Commission or the attorney general. He said his reading of state law uncovered no prohibition against his plan.

John E. O'Donnell, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, which advises state employees and appointees to boards on ethics matters, would not comment. But he said no blanket ban exists against lobbying by a board chairman.

He added that ethical questions created by such lobbying would hinge on the specifics of a case -- such as who the client was, and what the issue was. "You have to look at whether it's a conflict," O'Donnell said.

"Obviously, I wouldn't work on behalf of anyone whose interests were in higher education," said Billingsley. "We would have to be very cautious. But I can think of many issues that have no bearing on education at all where a point of view needs to be represented."

`Something of value'

In a letter to prospective clients, Billingsley wrote, "My experience over the last four years has convinced me, and our firm, that we have something of value to offer clients if I do this on a full-time basis."

Legislators before whom Billingsley has appeared as a regent said he probably could lobby without conflict. "My only concern would be if he lobbied on higher-education issues," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, which oversees the budget of the University System of Maryland. "He's had a very high profile as chairman of the Board of Regents. You have to make sure that legislators and his clients both haven't mixed up those roles."

One of Glendening's earliest political allies, Billingsley has headed one of the most successful law firms in Prince George's County, thanks his part to his friendship with Glendening.

The ties between the two men have been the subject of frequent controversy over the years. In a 1995 interview with The Sun, Billingsley readily acknowledged that his relationship with Glendening had provided "a source of revenue." Gaining clients through the relationship was justified, he said, as compensation for his unpaid work as head of Glendening's Economic Development Corp., formed to attract business to the county.

Billingsley said the prospect of lobbying in Annapolis occurred to him after his firm decided to open a branch office in the state capital. His quarters are at 95 Cathedral St., less than a block from the Anne Arundel County Courthouse and less than two blocks from the State House. He said he had lobbied in Annapolis in the early 1980s. He declined to say whom he represented.

Pub Date: 1/28/99

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