Needed: a new ethic in Annapolis

February 03, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

WHO CAN blame Lance Billingsley for trying to get in on a good thing? The chairman of the University of Maryland's board of regents sent out notices that he is hanging out his law firm's shingle in Annapolis to grab some of that lucrative lobbying business.

Lobbying is a driving force in state government. Last year, more than 550 special-interest representatives billed 1,800 clients more than $20 million to plead their causes.

The rules of the lobbying game are simple: There are no rules.

That's an overstatement, of course. Yet there are plenty of loopholes in laws regulating lobbyists.

The game is most rewarding for those with friends in high places. That's why Mr. Billingsley wants in. He cleaned up in Prince George's County when Gov. Parris Glendening was county executive; now he's positioned to do the same in Annapolis.

Close ties

Mr. Billingsley can't match lobbyist Gerard Evans' close personal ties to Senate President Mike Miller or lobbyist Gary Alexander's close political links to House Speaker Casper Taylor. But he certainly leads the list with long, solid connections to the governor.

When Mr. Glendening ruled the roost in Prince George's County, Mr. Billingsley's law firm played a major role in doling out legal advice to the county on bond issues. At one point, the lawyer estimated that bond counsel contracts from that county and regional governments -- $650,000 -- amounted to one-quarter of his firm's annual billings.

Major player

When Mr. Glendening became governor, Mr. Billingsley's reward was the coveted chairmanship of the board of regents. He's playing a leading role in reshaping the university system and determining what happens on each campus.

Once he hangs out that lawyer's shingle in Annapolis, though, clients will be lining up. Wouldn't you want to hire the guy who has the governor's ear?

Mr. Billingsley was criticized for trying to wear three hats at once -- chairman of the regents, Friend of Parris and special-interest lobbyist. He wisely decided to sidestep the issue until he leaves the university board next year. For now, he'll handle only non-paying lobbying jobs.

Still, the word has gone out. Clients are likely to sign up with his law firm, knowing that Mr. Billingsley will be their lobbyist by mid-2000.

Access is one of the keys in the State House. Longtime political and personal friendships are immensely valuable. They help you open doors, gaining entry when competing lobbyists can't get their phone calls returned.

A more disturbing trend is the use of money to get close to legislators. Lobbyists are now a prime source of fund-raising for legislators. Lobbyists are deluged with demands from legislators to sell dozens of $100 or $250 tickets to their clients.

Also, some lobbyists attempt to toss business lawmakers' way. They also spend tens of thousands of dollars fattening up legislators with free meals.

Lobbying rewards are so lucrative -- more than $1 million a year for the most prolific -- that it is a cutthroat business. Shaving corners is a fact of life.

Granted, most lobbyists play the game fair and square. The same holds for most legislators. The problem is that each side has its share of overachievers with voracious appetites.

Last night, legislators held a joint hearing on a proposal to tighten their ethics laws. Some don't want to do it. But maintaining the comfy culture that now exists with lobbyists would be so brazen that public reaction would be swift and harsh.

Yet even the proposed changes won't halt many of the abuses. Let's face it: Lawmakers don't want to crack down on their friends in the lobbying profession -- and they certainly don't want to crack down on their colleagues.

The corrosive influence of outside parties in the legislative process has changed the way things get done in the State House. That's because so much money is at stake for companies -- and for their registered lobbyists, too.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 2/03/99

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