Glimpsing seamy side of Md. lawmaking

Fraud trial: Did Del. Fulton and lobbyist Evans violate law through mutually beneficial dealings?

June 07, 2000

BEGINNING today, Marylanders will get a glimpse of the seamy side of how a bill becomes -- or doesn't become -- a law in Annapolis.

Federal prosecutors will attempt to prove that Baltimore Del. Tony E. Fulton and influential lobbyist Gerard E. Evans conspired to manipulate proposed legislation so that the lobbyist generated $400,000 in fees from his clients. Mr. Fulton's alleged reward: a $10,000 real estate commission on an Annapolis office building bought by the lobbyist.

Regardless of the outcome, citizens could be shocked by revelations about how business sometimes is conducted during General Assembly sessions.

Other lobbyists will testify. So will former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Other legislators could take the witness stand. What emerges may not mirror what you read in civics textbooks.

Close proximity of lobbyists and legislators in Annapolis has been a continuing source of concern. The job of the lobbyist is to influence legislative decisions, often by developing ties to lawmakers. That can be dangerous.

Legislators may feel beholden to lobbyists for favors, or for fund-raising help, or because of friendships that have been formed. Sadly, it's not uncommon for legislators to throw votes a lobbyist's way in Annapolis.

When a lawmaker helps a lobbyist with favorable votes, something is seriously wrong.

And when lobbyists can use their fund-raising muscle, generosity and personal relationships to gain easy access to legislators, it gives them a huge advantage. The losers are ordinary citizens whose concerns aren't reflected by the moneyed interests that pay lobbyists five- and six-figure fees.

A public airing of what sometimes goes on in the State House could have a sanitizing effect -- if legislators are sufficiently embarrassed by the testimony.

It certainly should spur attempts to draw sharper lines between lobbyists and lawmakers. The most recent effort met with stiff resistance from legislators, who still don't seem to understand the damage being done to their reputations.

But a study commission, led by a respected former House majority leader, Donald B. Robertson, intends to draft bills on lobbyist ethics for the next session. Legislative leaders could find themselves under strong public pressure to approve such reforms.

Let's hope so. Recent scandals have given state legislators -- and lobbyists -- a dreadful public image. Stronger walls separating the two groups is the only way to stop this coziness before it gets completely out of hand.

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