Task force chairman urges serious look at ethics code for lobbyists

Robertson says draft appears more feasible

October 07, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The chairman of a state task force on lobbying practices said yesterday that the panel should take a serious look at drafting a code of ethics for the profession.

Donald B. Robertson, who had expressed doubts about drafting such a code, said the task appears more feasible than he thought six weeks ago.

"I am contemplating something that would have some teeth in it and that would be meaningful," said Robertson, a former House of Delegates Democratic majority leader from Montgomery County. He said it was possible that the panel would recommend that such a code be enforced through penalties such as revocation or suspension of lobbying privileges.

Robertson's remarks came as he outlined a broad agenda of changes for the task force to consider, including a tightening of the current requirements that lobbyists report gifts and entertainment of legislators.

The chairman's priorities, which were not challenged by task force members, closely resemble recommendations from Common Cause/Maryland, the government ethics watchdog group.

Kathleen Skullney, executive director of the organization, said she was pleased by Robertson's agenda. "He seems to be firmly committed to accomplishing some very positive things," Skullney said after the meeting, during which she presented Common Cause's list of suggestions for strengthening the state's Public Ethics Law.

The task force, formed in the wake of a series of embarrassing incidents involving lobbyists and legislators, is scheduled to report its recommendations to the General Assembly by year's end.

Among the topics Robertson said the panel would take up are: Whether to drop exceptions to registration requirements for some lobbyists, such as those for colleges and local governments.

Increased penalties for lobbyists who don't comply with the law.

Whether attempts to influence decisions of the executive branch should bring a lobbyist under the provisions of the law.

A possible prohibition on registered lobbyists' serving on party central committees. Skullney expressed concern that the local committees' role in filling legislative vacancies could leave an appointed member beholden to a lobbyist.

Whether there needs to be a specific prohibition on the practice of "bell-ringing" -- arranging for the introduction of legislation so as to drum up business from clients who would be hurt by the bill.

Two prominent Annapolis lobbyists, Gerard E. Evans and John Stierhoff, are under investigation to determine whether they arranged to have Del. Tony E. Fulton, a Baltimore Democrat, introduce such a bill affecting the lead paint industry.

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