Preliminary OK given to ethics notification bill

Legislators would get notice when someone examines their file

April 06, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The state Senate gave preliminary approval last night to a bill that would require legislators to be notified when someone examines their ethics file in Annapolis.

The legislation, which has passed the House of Delegates, needs final approval by the Senate to go to the governor's desk. A roll-call on final passage could come today.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Tony E. Fulton, would give lawmakers the right to request that they be given the name and home address of any individual who asks to read the public file maintained on each legislator by the General Assembly's ethics committee.

The records include the disclosures legislators file to notify the panel of possible conflicts of interest, as well as official correspondence between a lawmaker and the committee.

Examining the committee's files is a routine step for reporters preparing articles on the ethical practices of legislators. Fulton, a Baltimore Democrat, became the subject of such an article in January when The Sun reported that he had been employed as the real estate agent for a prominent lobbying firm when it was buying a building in Annapolis. The ethics committee declined to investigate the matter.

Fulton said last night that legislators should have the right to know who's looking in their file. He said police would need to know who had examined the file if a legislator became a victim of crime.

"You want to be an open society, it can't be a one-way street," Fulton said. "Legislators are citizens, and they have rights, too."

Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican who opposed the bill in the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, said it is unnecessary.

"It just sends the wrong message," Harris said. "It sends the message that someone's watching whenever you go to the ethics file."

The bill is opposed by Common Cause/Maryland, a citizen watchdog organization. At an earlier hearing, executive director Kathleen S. Skullney told lawmakers the bill would be a "significant deterrent" to examination of the record.

"There is absolutely no compelling interest served by such a reporting requirement," she said.

The bill would extend to the ethics committee the same notification requirement imposed on the state's Ethics Commission, which keeps files on lawmakers' financial disclosures. Common Cause has labeled that requirement a "notable failure in Maryland's disclosure laws."

The Senate's consideration of the bill comes as the Assembly is undertaking its most sweeping ethics reform in two decades. That bill, in a conference committee to resolve the differences between the bills passed by the Senate and the House, is likely to prompt many legislators to make more extensive disclosures to the ethics committee than they have in previous years.

The original House and Senate versions of the ethics bills would have required publication of legislators' ethics files and financial disclosures on the Internet. That provision has been stripped out of both versions, forcing members of the public who want to examine the files to go to the committee's Annapolis office or the commission's Towson office.

Pub Date: 4/06/99

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