Ethics put to a vote

February 04, 2000|By Fraser C. Smith

LAWMAKERS WILL PASS more ethics legislation this year. The new law might help but it could even make matters worse. Every new ethics law, says the dean of Maryland lobbyists, James J. Doyle, lowers the bar. The new law hopes to warn off mischief by declaring illegal that which is clearly inadvisable: financial relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers.

The law may exempt the lawmaker from exercise of his or her own moral judgment. Mr. Doyle fears that more law could actually make it easier to clear the pervasive ethical hurdle.

This is so, he suggests, because laws can have the effect of legalizing everything not specifically prohibited.

No attempt to control gift giving or to limit campaign spending, for example, can cover every eventuality, every permutation of business and legislative, personal and professional contacts. Thus, everything not specifically excluded might be done -- whether or not doing so was proper.

Example A for this year is the case brought against Baltimore Del. Tony E. Fulton. The delegate was paid a $9,000 real estate fee for his role in the purchase of a house in Annapolis by lobbyists Gerard E. Evans and John R. Stierhoff. Mr. Fulton, abiding by an earlier law, disclosed the fee as required as if that would insulate him from criticism or worse.

Federal authorities now say he got the money for helping the lobbyists by filing or promising to file legislation that frighten certain businesses into thinking they needed Mr. Evans and Mr. Stierhoff to kill that very Fulton-sponsored legislation. Was a financial relationship between a lobbyist and a legislator appropriate? It wasn't against the law. So, perhaps, the law must be changed for the benefit of those who think lawmakers and lobbyists should be in business together.

But laws don't always take us where we want to go. They may draw bright lines to guide the dim and reassure the public. But they can't be comprehensive, and the clever will actively probe for uncovered terrain, set up camp and deal. In the big-money climate of Annapolis, they will feel a professional responsibility to do so: Their competitors may take advantage; clients want to win and don't always ask how; big fees call for bigger risks.

Maryland's citizen-lawmakers make the issue even more difficult. With lawyers, teachers, insurance salesmen, employees of big hospitals and the like the possibility of conflict is everywhere. "If I'm in Garrett County and about to run out of gas, I can't pull into [the local delegate's Exxon station] without breaking the law, " says Bruce C. Bereano, the lobbyist who recently lost his law license but not his lobbying privilege to a federal corruption conviction.

Mr. Bereano's joke notwithstanding, the difficulties of legislating are real. Some men and women simply won't serve because they fear conflict cannot be avoided. So, assembly leaders are saying with due gravity that a tighter law is critical -- not just to draw distinct lines but because the public insists. If the assembly doesn't act, voters will think the assembly tone deaf, unwilling to reform even in the midst of more criminal indictments lodged against lawmakers and lobbyists. Legislators will certainly vote yes on ethics. But they will hate doing so because, in a sense, they will have to agree officially that they need more policing.

The vote will be doubly painful. A better law won't do much to restore confidence. "Like many Marylanders," a letter writer said last week, "I believe most of our legislators are only interested in their own agendas and those of special interests, especially the large corporations who helped elect them." Lawmakers must find a way to circumscribe self-dealing in ways that account for the complexities of modern life in a citizen legislature. It's simply part of the job. If they were not so mole-like in Annapolis -- so certain of their value to the democratic process -- they might think more actively about how little Marylanders know of their efforts. It's easier to cling to the bad images, perhaps, but more Marylanders should go to a bill hearing.

Like it or not, though, the ethical sensibilities of each member remain the ultimate guarantor of honest lawmaking.

"Our ethics are as good as the people we elect," says Del. Shane Pendergrass of Howard County. "We can put all sorts of laws in place and the people who want to will find loopholes."

Fraser C. Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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