`No harm, no foul' no way to play politics

Bereano, Young: History of tolerance toward political dishonesty shames Maryland public officials.

October 08, 1999

IT'S a tradition in Maryland -- a shameful one -- that when politicians break the law and disgrace their elective offices, they are quickly forgiven, usually with a mere slap on the wrist.

The latest examples are now sadly unfolding. Larry Young, a former state senator removed from office for using his legislative post to enrich himself, has been acquitted by a jury. Bruce C. Bereano, a top lobbyist who spent time in prison for defrauding clients, used his connections to get top judges and politicians to praise him as a paragon of virtue in an effort to avoid disbarment.

From juries to office-holders and from judges to corporate executives, the attitude in Maryland toward political wrongdoing is curiously lax.

Efforts at reform have proven fruitless. In response to convictions of public officials in the 1970s, a state prosecutor's office was set up. But legislators sharply limited the prosecutor's powers; succeeding legislatures and governors have kept this office understaffed and underfunded. So who could have been surprised by the inept prosecution of Mr. Young?

This year, the legislature passed its own ethics reforms to reduce the coziness between lawmakers and lobbyists.

But enforcement was left in the hands of lawmakers, ensuring kid-glove treatment.

Similarly, a panel set up to tighten laws regarding lobbyists is unlikely to recommend strong action because it might jolt the comfortable status quo.

Leniency can be seen in the courts, too, where jurists have been unwilling to get tough with politically influential lawyers -- or with their fellow judges -- who have gotten into trouble.

Thus, the decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals in the Bereano case will be closely scrutinized. A Circuit Court judge has already recommended Bereano not be disbarred because only a "minor degree" of harm was caused by the lobbyist when he overbilled clients and then used the money to make illegal campaign contributions.

That's the way those who sit in judgment have viewed most sins of politicians and lobbyists: as relatively minor matters that need not be treated too harshly. Will the Court of Appeals continue to signal that political crimes don't merit harsh punishment?

"No harm, no foul" is the way playground basketball games are played. That's the way Maryland politicians, lobbyists and jurists too often operate as well.

Enormous harm is done when a political crime goes unpunished. People lose faith in government. They grow blase about corruption. "Everyone does it" is the dismissive refrain. And Maryland's sorry reputation grows as a place where corruption is tolerated.

It is a legacy that no one in this state can view with pride.

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