Ethics reform a must

January 16, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

ETHICS questions once again are drawing an embarrassing amount of attention to Annapolis.

The U.S. attorney for Maryland -- the same office that pursued Spiro Agnew and Marvin Mandel in the 1970s -- is prosecuting a state delegate and a top lobbyist on mail and wire fraud charges in an alleged scheme to defraud the lobbyist's clients.

Just a few blocks from the State House, the chairman of the Anne Arundel County Council thumbed his nose at the notion of ethics in government by repeatedly pushing the interests of one of his business clients seeking county work.

Even when the county's ethics commission told him to stop, he continued to put his client's interests -- and his own, as it turned out -- ahead of his duties to his constituents.

Drawing a line between a lawmaker's public and private interests is at the crux of the problem. With part-time legislators, there's a twilight zone where an elected official must tread with enormous care.

In the case of Councilman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., he never understood that representing the interests of his longtime accounting client in its battles with Anne Arundel County government -- intervening with key officials, berating county workers in a dispute with his client, pushing to get his client more county contracts -- clearly crossed the line into the unethical.

It gives the strong appearance that he's using his public office as leverage to help his private client, and possibly himself, in a joint venture with his client.

Policing the lawmakers

Back in the State House, lawmakers and interest groups also continue to stumble into the ethics thicket because there's no strong enforcement panel -- the same holds true in Anne Arundel County. There's no consensus on how to impose a strong ethics structure on elected lawmakers.

The General Assembly's presiding officers, for instance, want to outlaw direct legislator-lobbyist business deals. Who should object to this modest step but Kathleen Skullney, the state lobbyist for Common Cause, which bills itself as a citizen watchdog for ethics in government. Her point isn't so much that the proposal lacks merit as the fact that you wouldn't need a new law if Maryland had a tough ethics enforcer.

That's what is lacking in Maryland. There are plenty of statutes and legislative rules governing a lawmaker's conduct. What's missing is someone with the authority to make legislators abide by a strict code of conduct.

Take the case of Del. Tony E. Fulton of Baltimore, who is now under federal indictment along with lobbyist Gerard E. Evans. When this newspaper raised questions about their business deal, the legislature's so-called ethics committee took a cursory look at it and gave its assent. Now it's clear that was a mistake. But it happens all the time.

Legislators don't want to sit in judgment of their peers. They don't want to penalize them or come across as holier than thou. They don't want to disturb the easygoing relationships that exist in the State House. Nor do lawmakers want to give an outside panel of regulators the power to tell elected officials what they can do.

The overwhelming majority of state and local lawmakers are decent, well-meaning people who understand the importance of separating their actions as public official from their private lives.

But there are other legislators who need to be educated on what's proper. These are the ones who need to know there's a penalty to be paid if you violate ethics rules and statutes, that such behavior betrays your constituents.

Those who hold elective office pay a high price for that privilege. They must adhere to a more rigorous standard of conduct than they might as private citizens. That could mean passing up enriching business ventures or giving up certain kinds of work that create a conflict of interest.

Being an elected lawmaker isn't easy. The hours are long; the compensation is modest; the criticism from unhappy constituents never ceases. You're in the public spotlight. Matters only become worse when another legislator steps over the ethics line without being disciplined. Then every lawmaker suffers in the court of public opinion.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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