Panel weighs ethics bill

Ban on business deals between lobbyists, lawmakers proposed

January 06, 2000|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A task force on lobbying reforms meets today to help decide if Maryland should adopt groundbreaking legislation to prohibit state lawmakers from entering business relationships with lobbyists.

The task force is reviewing legislation that House of Delegates Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller proposed in the wake of last month's indictments of a state legislator and a leading Annapolis lobbyist on mail and wire fraud charges.

A federal grand jury accused Del. Tony E. Fulton, a West Baltimore Democrat, and lobbyist Gerard E. Evans of defrauding paint and asbestos manufacturers who were the lobbyist's clients. As part of the scheme, the indictment alleges, Evans steered a $10,125 real estate commission to Fulton on a real estate deal involving Evans' firm.

Both men have pleaded innocent.

If approved, the legislation proposed by Taylor and Miller apparently would make Maryland the only state in the nation to prohibit its lawmakers from doing business with lobbyists, experts on state ethics laws say.

Veteran lobbyists and legislators acknowledge that there are occasional business transactions -- such as a legislator selling insurance to a lobbyist -- but portray these as innocuous and infrequent dealings.

The proposed law would bar a legislator from engaging "in a business transaction for which compensation is paid, received or anticipated" if a regulated lobbyist is part of the transaction. There are exemptions if the amount of money involved is insignificant or there is only a remote connection between the legislator and lobbyist in the business transaction.

"I can't think of another state statute that reads like that," said Kenneth A. Gross, a Washington-based lawyer who is the co-author of two reference books on government ethics laws.

Robert M. Stern, director of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit research center in Los Angeles, also said he knows of no other state that specifically prohibits business dealings between legislators and lobbyists.

"I would be surprised if any state had it because most state legislatures are part time and do not restrict outside employment," Stern said. "I'm not sure that this has ever come up before."

Need for bill questioned

Kathleen S. Skullney, who heads the government watchdog group Common Cause/Maryland, said the proposed legislation isn't needed because existing state ethics laws -- if seriously enforced -- are sufficient to address the problem.

She said there is nothing inherently wrong with a legislator doing business with a lobbyist but that a business transaction is wrong if it involves a "quid pro quo" relationship between the lobbyist and legislator.

"Do we need this bill? No," Skullney said. "What I'm saying is that the transactions that are suspect are self-evident and can be covered by vigorous enforcement of the prohibition of financial conflicts of interests that already are in existence."

Fulton disclosed his real estate commission on the deal involving Evans in December 1998. A month later, the General Assembly's ethics committee, after a cursory review, decided Fulton had broken no ethics laws in the transaction.

The impact the proposed law would have, if adopted, is unclear.

State ethics officials said they have no way of knowing how many legislators might be doing business with lobbyists in one way or another and would therefore be affected by the legislation.

"Nobody knows the answer to that question," said John E. O'Donnell, executive director of the state ethics commission. "I would tend to think it's a small number but I don't think anyone really knows because we don't have that type of disclosure."

While Maryland legislators have to disclose their employers and sources of income, they are not required to name clients who might buy insurance from them or hire them to provide professional services, such as accounting or legal work.

Dealings believed to be rare

Veteran lobbyists and lawmakers said they believe such business dealings are rare.

"I think it's very uncommon," said lobbyist Joseph A. Schwartz III.

Schwartz said that, in his 25 years of lobbying, he can "count on the fingers of less than one hand" the times legislators approached him about doing business with them. There was no arm-twisting on those few occasions, he said.

"In at least one case it was a product I wanted to buy, insurance," Schwartz said. "I'm glad the person came to me and hawked it."

Another State House lobbyist, J. William Pitcher, said he sees no widespread problem of legislators and lobbyists doing business together. He is a member of the task force that will review the proposed legislation today.

"I don't see enough of it happening to bother me from an ethical standpoint," he said.

Pitcher, who is a lawyer, said he occasionally refers a client to a legislator who happens to be a lawyer with experience in a specialized field or who works in the locale where the client needs help.

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