Ethics bill to allow lawmakers some free tickets

Out-of-state conferences exempt from meal rule

April 09, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

House and Senate leaders put the finishing touches on a major ethics reform bill last night, but after allowing legislators to continue to accept sports tickets from the University of Maryland.

A conference committee of three senators and three delegates, including the General Assembly's two presiding officers, also voted to amend the bill to allow senators and delegates attending out-of-state legislative conferences to accept meals paid for by corporate lobbyists.

The measure generally prohibits legislators from letting lobbyists buy them a meal.

The Senate and House are expected to give final approval to the bill today and Gov. Parris N. Glendening is expected to sign it.

While softening the bill somewhat, the conference committee left intact its key provisions.

In addition to cracking down on wining and dining by lobbyists, the legislation prohibits lawmakers from taking jobs with state or local government without approval from the Assembly's joint ethics committee.

It also strengthens the powers of the ethics committee, which is charged with investigating allegations of wrongdoing by lawmakers, and establishes the position of an "ethics counsel" to advise lawmakers on potential conflicts of interest.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who championed that provision, said he considered it the bill's hallmark.

"I think that's what's going to change the ethical culture here more than anything," said Taylor, a Cumberland Democrat.

The ethics bill is the culmination of a review launched by the legislature last year in the wake of the expulsion of a senator and the forced resignation of a delegate for ethics violations.

It was largely written by a task force headed by U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates.

As the conference committee smoothed out minor differences between the House and Senate versions, the panel took a slightly stricter approach on government jobs than either chamber had.

Under the final bill, legislators will be able to take jobs in state or local merit systems or human services areas only with the approval of the ethics committee.

The conference committee accepted looser restrictions on tickets, settling on language that will allow the University of Maryland to hand out seats to its sporting events.

The final bill includes a new exemption to allow lawmakers to take meals from and attend events paid for by lobbyists at events such as the National Conference of State Legislators.

That is allowed under current law but would have been prohibited under the pending legislation.

Conference committee members said it would be awkward for Maryland lawmakers to have to skip such events during those conferences while their counterparts from other states would face no such prohibition.

"We want to be able to participate in everything everyone else participates in," Taylor said.

Pub Date: 4/09/99

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