When reality, perception collide

The Political Game

Ethics: A delegate's stance on a bill opposed by lobbyists he's done business with could make him look beholden.

April 06, 1999|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

MANY AGREE THAT IN politics, no difference exists between perception and reality. But the two collide and merge more often than politicians seem to realize. Cases in point arise constantly to bedevil and frustrate Maryland's citizen legislature.

At the beginning of the current session, the General Assembly's joint ethics committee was asked to investigate a real estate transaction involving Del. Tony E. Fulton, a Baltimore Democrat, and two of the state capitol's leading lobbyists, Gerard E. Evans and John R. Stierhoff.

Fulton was one of the real estate agents when Evans and Stierhoff bought a historic Annapolis house on Conduit Street. Fulton was paid $9,000 for his role in the $600,000 sale. Since he would have to vote on matters involving clients of Evans and Stierhoff, some thought a perception might arise that Fulton was beholden to them.

The ethics panel concluded that Fulton had met the letter of the law, declaring his relationship with Evans and Stierhoff as required. No law had been broken. No investigation would be undertaken. Fulton declared himself vindicated.

But Del. Kenneth C. Montague, chairman of the ethics panel, sounded a note of caution: "Legislators," he said, "should avoid not only impropriety, but the appearance of impropriety."

And the reasons for that became obvious last week when Fulton took to the House floor to oppose a bill also opposed by Evans and Stierhoff.

The bill that he and the lobbyists wanted to kill would require judges to review financial arrangements between structured settlement dealers and consumers.

A structured settlement is a deal in which a company offers an immediate cash payment to the consumer, for example a lottery winner, in exchange for the right to collect a larger sum over time. At issue: Has the consumer been fairly treated and completely understood the deal?

Fulton said the idea of having judges sign off on these agreements would backlog courts, and would be overreaching for government: "Should a court have the right to inject themselves and say, `Oh, Mr. Consumer, you don't know what you're doing?' "

The answer, Fulton said, is no.

"Mr. Speaker, I shouldn't have a dog in this fight, but I think I do," he went on. "We've been trying to get money to open up this court system [in Baltimore]. If this is a negotiation between the company and myself, and I decide to take 40 cents on the dollar, why should the courts be involved in this kind of negotiation?"

One of the bill's sponsors, Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, a Montgomery Democrat, answered.

"When the consumer is being ripped off big time," he said, "I want the court to step in and say, `We're not going to allow it.' We're talking about adding some level of regulation to an industry that's totally unregulated. This [he held up an information sheet distributed by Evans and Stierhoff] was put out by the very companies we're trying to regulate. I would say this kind of thing is exactly why we need this bill."

The bill requiring court involvement passed 85 to 44 and was moved to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain fate.

Maryland sets historical standard of tolerance

Under Maryland's famous 1649 Act of Toleration, those who spoke ill of another's religion were to be fined or "publickly whipt and imprisoned without bail" until "he or she or they shall satisfy the party so offended or grieved by such reproachful language."

These lashes were meted out to those who would openly criticize or slander any belief, Christian or non-Christian. Maryland's tough opposition to intolerance teaches a lesson with obvious application in today's world, said Edward C. Papenfuse, the state archivist, who spoke to the General Assembly on Maryland Day.

"If only the people in and surrounding Kosovo, the people of Ireland, of India, of countless other troubled places on this earth, had the vision to adopt the best elements of such a law and had the stamina, self discipline and drive to abide by its provisions perhaps the unconscionable bloodshed that we read about every morning and see every evening on the news could be avoided," he said.

Papenfuse gave each lawmaker a copy of the "New Guide to the Old Line State," recently updated by him and others. It was dedicated to the late Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein.

Neville narrowly elected Democratic Chairs treasurer

Mary Jo Neville, vice chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party, was elected treasurer of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, an organization of the 50 party leaders from across the country. Her one-vote victory occurred when the chairwoman, Joan Menard of Massachusetts, voted to break a tie. She is the first Marylander to serve on this panel.

Pub Date: 4/06/99

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