Lobbying bill due for 2000 push

Proposal would bar legislators from doing business with lobbyists

Leaders want action now

Common Cause chief criticizes measure as broad, unworkable

January 07, 2000|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Legislative leaders said they still plan to push for legislation this year to bar Maryland lawmakers from doing business with lobbyists, although the proposal got a cool reception yesterday from a task force studying lobbying reforms.

During a three-hour task force meeting, the proposal -- which ethics law experts said would apparently be the first of its kind in the nation -- was criticized as overly broad and unworkable by several panel members.

And to the surprise of many of them, the executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause/Maryland said she shared that view.

"It seems to me that if we have a blanket prohibition, we are setting ourselves up to fail," said Kathleen S. Skullney, the Common Cause director. "Legislators and lobbyists interacting is not inherently evil."

The task force was 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 allegedly defrauding paint and asbestos manufacturers who were Evans' clients. The alleged scheme involved legislative proposals by Fulton that could have cost the companies millions of dollars -- proposals that Evans was paid by the companies to fight.

As part of the plan, the indictment alleges, Evans steered a $10,125 real estate commission to Fulton on a real estate deal involving Evans' firm. Both have pleaded innocent.

Taylor and Miller said they intend to forge ahead with the legislation despite the reservations of lobbying task force members, Common Cause and others.

"I guess I'm sort of outraged at the Common Cause approach to this thing," said Taylor. "I think it's a complete about-face on their part. It certainly isn't consistent with what they've been preaching about the perception of unethical activity."

Taylor said the latest indictments and the public perception of overly cozy relationships between legislators and lobbyists were the reasons for proposing the legislation for this session.

Miller said he thinks such legislation is needed this year. "It's not going to be shelved because it's a real issue that can and should be addressed in 2000," he said. "Staff people are going to be working between now and the date for filing bills to craft language that can accomplish what the speaker and I feel is necessary."

Taylor said he sees it as straightforward legislation.

"It's pretty simple to say that no direct transaction can occur between a legislator and a paid registered lobbyist. Period. End of bill," Taylor said. "That's pretty simple."

But during the meeting, task force members concluded that prohibiting business dealings between lawmakers and lobbyists is more complicated than it seems.

They were told that a legislator would not be permitted to sell his house to a lobbyist, even if the lobbyist were paying fair market value for it, if the legislation is approved.

Similarly, a lobbyist who is an attorney could not bring into a case another attorney who is a legislator if that legislator were to receive any compensation for his efforts on the client's behalf.

At the end of the meeting, the task force decided to send a memorandum to Taylor and Miller telling them that the proposed ban raises complex issues that need more intensive review in deciding whether to go forward.

The panel also suggested that Assembly leaders send a directive to lawmakers advising them to be cautious about business dealings with lobbyists and the need to avoid possible conflicts of interest.

One panel member, Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat, had wanted the task force to go further. "I think we should clearly say to the presiding officers that we do not think a bill on this subject should be introduced this year," Collins said.

He said it would make more sense to let the task force consider the issue further when it resumes its work in May, so it could be dealt with in a larger package of lobbying reforms that would be presented to the General Assembly next year.

"It's abundantly clear that this proposal, as drafted, is fatally flawed," Collins said. "This bill has earned its wings and deserves to fly off into heaven with all the other dead bills."

Skullney, the Common Cause director, said she thought the proposed ban was too broad and did not address the real issue of legislators involved in conflicts of interests or in misusing their public offices for private gain.

She said she saw no reason legislators should be prohibited from engaging in a business transaction with lobbyists -- such as buying a car or a house -- as long as it was in the ordinary course of business and at fair market value.

Donald B. Robertson, a former Montgomery County delegate who chairs the lobbying task force, expressed surprise at the comments.

"You are not prepared to say that any transaction between a legislator and lobbyist shall be a prohibited transaction?" he asked.

"No," said Skullney.

After the meeting, Skullney said she supports efforts by legislative leaders to tighten ethics laws, but does not think a sweeping ban on business dealings between legislators and lobbyists is the right approach.

"I will absolutely support a bill that goes to address the quid pro quo transactions every time," she said. "This bill doesn't do it. In the long run, we have the right to distinguish between good bills and bad bills."

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