Task force on lobbyist ethics back at work

After 5-month break, commission will address penalties, other issues

May 24, 2000|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Resuming work after a five-month break, a state task force studying lobbyist ethics reform intends to review everything from lobbying by e-mail to who should have to register as a lobbyist.

The task force -- led by Donald B. Robertson, a former House of Delegates Democratic majority leader from Montgomery County -- spent last fall reviewing state laws governing lobbyists but suspended its work during the legislative session.

"I don't want to prejudge what the commission will do, but I think we will be recommending significant improvements in the law," Robertson said. He said he expects the task force to complete its work in September.

Robertson, chairman of the Study Commission on Lobbyist Ethics, said major issues under review include what penalties to impose on lobbyists who step out of line and what "triggering mechanisms" should be used to determine when someone must register as a lobbyist.

The task force could recommend a code of conduct for lobbyists, he said, to protect the public in dealings between lobbyists and lawmakers, not in dealings between lobbyists and their clients or other lobbyists.

"There was a strong feeling within the [task force] that it was not appropriate for this commission to propose a comprehensive code of ethics related to all aspects of lobbyist activities," Robertson said.

The task force also could revisit the issue of banning lobbyists from doing business with lawmakers.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller proposed such a ban during the last session, but it was rejected by the legislature in favor of a bill requiring lobbyists to disclose such relationships.

The panel was formed in the wake of ethics problems in the legislature over the past two years. Violations led to the expulsion of Sen. Larry Young, a Baltimore Democrat, and questions about the business dealings of Baltimore Democratic Del. Gerald J. Curran prompted his resignation.

In December, a federal grand jury indicted Baltimore Democratic Del. Tony E. Fulton and lobbyist Gerard E. Evans on 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.

Evans and Fulton have pleaded not guilty. No trial date has been set.

Task force members offered different views of where they see the panel's work headed.

"I have a sense that when we're finished the report will surprise some people," said state Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat who is co-chairman of the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee.

"I think when we're done, hopefully we'll have very clear and strong lines drawn where lobbyists will know exactly what they should and should not be doing in the practice of their profession," he said.

Lobbyist J. William Pitcher said Maryland's laws already are among the most restrictive in the nation and that he does not see a need for major changes.

"The main thing I want to see is clarification of what the law is, so you don't have to be a Harvard law professor to understand it," Pitcher said.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who is a task force member, said the group will have to be cautious in setting up guidelines for when people must register as lobbyists so that it doesn't create problems for community associations and civic groups.

She said there is a difference between someone whose profession it is to lobby legislators on behalf of multiple clients and a neighborhood association that has an interest in a particular bill.

"We do have to be cautious on how far we take it," she said.

McIntosh said the task force also must deal with new issues, such as e-mails to legislators while they are in session, on the floor of the House or Senate. "I don't think anybody ought to be sitting on the floor and peppered with e-mails from lobbyists," McIntosh said.

Kathleen S. Skullney, who has been monitoring the task force's work as executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, said she hopes the panel will look further into the issue of restricting campaign fund raising by lobbyists.

"There's just a universe of ways in which legislators let it be known that they would like the lobbyists to attend a fund-raising event and bring 10 people with them," she said. "The message is very clear: `If you don't [attend] we're not going to look favorably on you.' "

She said she hopes the panel will recommend "significant funding increases" for the state ethics commission to pay for enforcement of lobbying rules.

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