Lawmakers weigh barring regents from paid lobbying of state agencies

Some UM board members say bill is too broad

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

Prompted by concerns about the lobbying activities of Maryland Board of Regents Chairman Lance W. Billingsley, the General Assembly is considering barring regents from representing, for pay, any party on any matter before state agencies.

University system officials called the prohibition unnecessary and overly broad, warning it would make it difficult to get good people to agree to serve on the University System of Maryland board and could affect several current members. The system includes 11 degree-granting campuses and two research institutions.

"What this bill does is provide a prohibition which is not easy to define and would affect every regent," said William T. Wood, an attorney who serves on the board. "We work without compensation and we have different roles in our professional and business lives that could be impacted by such an inartfully and broadly worded change in the law."

The prohibition has already passed the full House as an amendment to a comprehensive bill on restructuring the university system. The bill is headed to a conference committee, where legislators will work out differences between the House and Senate versions.

Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican who was a sponsor of the measure, said it was prompted by a Sun article last month that detailed Billingsley's work for various entities doing business with the state.

Billingsley, an attorney and longtime close friend of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, has said he was acting as a "lawyer-advocate" for those clients, not a lobbyist as defined in state law. He said he saw no problem with arranging for clients to meet with the governor or in intervening on their behalf with regulatory agencies.

Flanagan said he sees a problem with Billingsley's actions.

"Somebody who has a powerful position in government should not also turn around and -- for profit -- lobby government," Flanagan said. "That's clearly what he was doing. He may not technically be a lobbyist, but in terms of any common-sense understanding, he has been acting as a lobbyist."

Flanagan said the wording of the law is the same as that which applies to legislators in an ethics law reform measure. He said he does not consider it to be badly or too broadly written.

"I think those comments indicate insensitivity to the genuine concerns that come from Mr. Billingsley's lobbying activities," Flanagan said.

Billingsley did not return telephone calls Wednesday or yesterday seeking his comments, but other regents and university officials said they strongly oppose the amendment and want to see it removed.

"I understand what they're trying to do, but I think that's too broad," said former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, a lawyer who serves on the 17-member board that sets policy for the system.

"For example, I represent an outfit that has a process for turning chicken litter into fertilizer. Does that mean I could not make a presentation before, say, the Department of the Environment? I don't see how that would present any conflict."

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said it "could well be changed in light of the feedback" from regents.

"I think some of the regents members probably have some very legitimate concerns," Rawlings said. "We'll review it in the conference committee. At the same time, I think you should expect some statement about what we believe is appropriate, ethical behavior on the part of the regents."

Rawlings said his main concern was that regents not be involved in lobbying legislators for private clients. Billingsley had said earlier this year that he intended to register as a lobbyist and do that, but abandoned the idea after he was sharply criticized.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and a key voice on higher education issues, said she agreed with the intent of the amendment, which she said was clearly targeted at Billingsley.

"I think this doesn't look right," she said of Billingsley's lobbying activities. "I think this was caused by the discomfort we felt at the potential for a member of the Board of Regents lobbying while he was the head of a state school system."

Hoffman said she would review the language to make sure it was not too broad.

In Annapolis

Highlights in Annapolis today:

House of Delegates meets. 10 a.m. House chamber.

Senate meets. 9 a.m. Senate chamber. Discussion of tobacco tax.

Pub Date: 4/09/99

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