The annual 90-day balancing act begins

Comment

January 09, 2000|By C. FRASER SMITH

HOWARD County's citizen legislators prepare now for their annual sojourn in Annapolis, another test of their commitment to public service -- and the difficult choices that service entails.

Howard Democrats and Republicans, one assumes, will repair to their durable tradition of bipartisan pursuit of more money for roadwork and schools. "Speaking as one voice" might well be the legend on their legislative shields. Nothing seems particularly likely to disrupt that laudable goal this year.

With any luck at all, the delegation will come home in April with a pleasing list of responses to Howard's many needs. The state has a surplus of nearly $1 billion. Gov. Parris N. Glendening wants to spend on schools. Legislative leaders are urging him to address highway needs with the same legacy-laden urgency. An income tax cut may even be possible.

But Howard's representatives -- in particular its Republican members -- will also face an issue of critical importance to the assembly. How can they preserve or restore the legislature's integrity and find a proper balance between their public and private lives?

Once again, the issue is legislative ethics.

To put matter the bluntly, a member of the House of Delegates, Baltimore Democrat Tony E. Fulton, will take his seat this year under indictment. The U.S. attorney says he had a criminal relationship with Gerard E. Evans, a lobbyist who is accused of generating client contracts and fees with the leverage of legislation proposed by Delegate Fulton that was counter to the interests of Mr. Evans' clients.

All of that is distressing enough even if one assumes, as we all must, that each party is innocent. For Republicans, the difficulty is higher in degree because their party's state chairman, Richard D. Bennett, himself a former U.S. attorney, represents Mr. Fulton in the impending court action.

Mr. Fulton is entitled to the best defense he can find -- and Mr. Bennett`s stature serves the delegate well.

But what of Republican legislators and Maryland Republicans in general? Are they at all disarmed by the presence of Mr. Bennett in the midst of this imbroglio that, for the most part, features Democrats? If he weren't a player in the criminal trial, would Mr. Bennett be commenting on the embarrassment of the Democrats?

As matters stand, he must be silent. His party may be somewhat muzzled as well, and Republican delegates will be even more careful about what they say publicly.

"It doesn't impinge on my ability to do my job," says Howard Del. Robert L. Flanagan. "I try to steer clear of commenting on pending criminal trials. From Linda Tripp to Tony and Gerry, I think I've been reasonably consistent."

But, he said, plenty of latitude remains for addressing ethical issues. "The fact that one of my colleagues is under indictment doesn't affect my saying that a lobbyist convicted of a crime ought not be allowed to be a lobbyist," he said. "The revolving door between jail and the legislature," he said, ought to be closed.

As for Mr. Bennett, defense lawyer and party chairman, Mr. Flanagan said the course must be a careful one. He owes a sacred professional obligation to his client -- a duty which necessarily limits his ability to comment as a partisan Republican.

Party Chairman Bennett agrees. "There is still a presumption of innocence the last time I checked," he said. "The charges against Delegate Fulton are going to be defended aggressively, and my ultimate obligation lies with my clients.

"With respect to the Maryland Republican Party, I've worked very hard to make it stronger. If at any time I don't think I can move in the best interest of the party, I'll have to consider the nature of my professional legal commitment and the extent to which they do or do not permit a level of political activity by me." His clients and his law firm, he said, will always come first.

Suddenly Mr. Bennett was, himself, an example of how difficult it can be to balance professional and political life. Having advanced his law career by the profile he's had as a Republican candidate and public official, he must now wonder if he isn't at a crossroads: Can he be a lawyer with a political case to defend -- and lead his party at the same time?

Other legislators have found the conflict intolerable: They have sacrificed business, or left the assembly to be freer with their careers. Citizens in citizen legislatures make those decisions all the time. In a sense, that choice may lie at the heart of all these issues.

In recent years, Republicans have found plenty of grist in the mill of Annapolis for party building. Democrats control the House and Senate as well as all the state's high offices. When trouble hits, naturally, Democrats get the criticism -- and Republicans have grown in registration, in local offices held and in the caliber of candidates they field.

The artfully glib and aggressive Delegate Flanagan, fully constrained in public comment on the plight of his colleague, says nothing of the conflict afflicting his party chairman -- observing only that any lawyer owes his client 100 percent attention.

He doesn't say it, but others in the GOP are wondering how they can have 100 percent -- or even 25 percent -- of Mr. Bennett's energies in the current circumstances.

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun in Howard County.

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