Ethics on trial in the State House

Reform bill: Too many legislators still don't see why they should abide by tougher standards of conduct.

February 02, 1999

THEY JUST don't get it. After the embarrassment of expelling one state legislator and forcing a second to resign last year, after the recent awkward disclosure that another lawmaker had accepted a $9,000 fee from lobbyists, some members of the Maryland General Assembly still are resisting efforts to upgrade their ethics.

These lawmakers don't seem to comprehend the public derision that greets each disclosure of misconduct. A handful of money-hungry colleagues are giving the General Assembly a bad reputation.

Starting tonight, legislators have a chance to repair the damage that these scandals have caused. A pair of bills, crafted by a high-powered task force last summer, receives a joint hearing. But already, complaints and grousing about tighter standards are mounting.

Opposing these bills would only confirm in people's minds that legislators condone corrupt behavior. Weakening the package would confirm that lawmakers are eager to create lots of loopholes.

Top legislative leaders have given strong endorsement to the reforms. These changes would force each legislator to look more carefully at every potential conflict of interest and to receive individual tutoring on what's required. The measures also would bar individual legislators from regularly dining on lobbyists' expense accounts.

It's not unreasonable to expect our elected representatives to abide by a strict code of conduct. State lawmakers should be alarmed that the public views "legislative ethics" as a cruel joke being played on voters.

It is past time to change the clubby atmosphere in Annapolis that has given some lobbyists leverage with some legislators. Indeed, lawmakers ought to strengthen the reform bills in key respects.

The State Ethics Commission should be given the power to rein-in egregious behavior by lobbyists. A stronger fire wall should be erected limiting dealings between elected officials and those who lobby. And the legislature's own ethics panel needs far stronger powers to police lawmakers who violate the bounds of propriety.

Success will require willpower. The vast majority of lawmakers in the State House understand the need for upright behavior. Now they must prove they have the courage to impose higher standards of conduct on themselves -- and to act firmly against ethics violators.

Pub Date: 2/02/99

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