The General Assembly gave final approval yesterday to an ethics reform bill that will require the disclosure of business transactions between legislators and lobbyists.
With no debate, the Senate approved the legislation 40-5, sending it to the governor's desk for his expected signature. The compromise measure was developed by legislative leaders after a proposal to ban such transactions received a cool reception from lawmakers and others.
"The bill continues to move us forward in our effort to strengthen the culture of our institution regarding ethics," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "Hopefully, it will continue to improve the public perception regarding the integrity of our state government."
The legislation requires lobbyists to file reports with the State Ethics Commission disclosing any business transaction with a legislator that involves $1,000 or more, or a series of transactions involving $5,000.
"It was not an easy bill to pass," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "We took two approaches, and this one was the most acceptable to the members."
Miller and Taylor, of Allegany, introduced the legislation in response to the indictments in December of Baltimore Democratic Del. Tony E. Fulton and lobbyist Gerard E. Evans on federal mail fraud charges. Prosecutors allege that Evans steered a lucrative real estate commission to Fulton, who is a real estate agent, as part of a scheme to generate business for Evans.
The measure approved yesterday was one of two introduced by the Democratic leaders on the subject. A bill that would have banned transactions between legislators and lobbyists died in a House committee last month.
Lawmakers of both parties and a representative of Common Cause/Maryland, a government watchdog group, argued that the latter bill, as drafted, would be unworkable.
Miller and Taylor said they would continue to push for the ban. A task force headed by former Del. Donald B. Robertson, a Montgomery County Democrat, is expected to make recommendations next year for changes in state law governing lobbyists.
"We've passed this disclosure bill and continue to recommend to the task force that they pursue the [other]," Miller, a Prince George's Democrat, said.
The bill was proposed more than a decade ago by former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, who seemed surprised that it passed. "It really is a step in the right direction," the Baltimore Democrat said.
Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, said she was disappointed that the bill had been amended to require disclosure only by registered lobbyists, and not by the companies that employ them or, in the case of lawyers, the law firms.
But, she said, "we should never miss an opportunity to make our ethics laws a little bit better."
The indictment of Fulton and Evans was the most recent in a series of ethics problems in the legislature in the past two years. Violations led to the expulsion of Democratic Baltimore state Sen. Larry Young, and questions about the dealings of Democratic Baltimore Del. Gerald J. Curran prompted his resignation.
Fulton and Evans were indicted on 11 counts of mail and wire fraud in connection with allegations of a scheme to defraud the lobbyist's paint and asbestos company clients. Both have pleaded innocent.
The indictment alleges that Fulton helped Evans collect $400,000 in lobbying fees over three years by proposing legislation that would make it easier to file lawsuits against paint companies and asbestos manufacturers.
Evans is accused of using the threat of such legislation to generate fees from the companies, which paid his firm to fight such bills. Prosecutors allege that Evans steered a $10,125 real estate commission to Fulton as part of the scheme.