Task force seeks to end `bell ringing'

Measure likely to be in ethics package presented this fall

June 29, 2000|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Maryland's ethics laws should expressly prohibit a lobbyist from getting a friendly legislator to introduce legislation for the purposes of opposing it, a task force studying lobbying reforms agreed yesterday.

Donald B. Robertson, the task force chairman, said that such a measure "clearly will be part of the package" of ethics law changes the panel plans to present to the General Assembly's leadership this fall.

Task force members took no formal vote at their meeting yesterday but there was no opposition voiced to the general concept of banning a practice known as "bell ringing," having legislation introduced in order to make money opposing it.

Robertson, a former House of Delegates Democratic majority leader from Montgomery County, acknowledged that such practices likely violate separate, existing state and federal criminal laws against fraud. But said it needs to be clearly stated in Maryland's ethics laws as well.

"I believe there is a value in stating it in the place where you turn" to for the laws that regulate lobbyists, Robertson said. He said it would also serve as an "educational tool and a warning" to lobbyists.

The task force's proposal comes as a jury in U.S. District Court in Baltimore hears testimony in the trial of a prominent Annapolis lobbyist and a member of the General Assembly on mail fraud charges related to an alleged "bell ringing" scheme.

Prosecutors say that lobbyist Gerard E. Evans and Del. Tony E. Fulton, a West Baltimore Democrat, plotted to defraud some of Evans' clients by scaring them into believing Fulton was pushing legislation they feared.

Both men have pleaded innocent to the charges.

The proposal to recommend that "bell ringing" be expressly prohibited in state ethics law generated brief discussion at yesterday's task force meeting and only a passing reference to the trial.

The task force, which began meeting last fall, is reviewing state ethics laws that govern lobbyists with the objective of strengthening the statutes and imposing tougher penalties on violators.

The task force has not yet decided on civil or criminal penalties that might apply to "bell ringing" or other violations of the ethics laws by lobbyists. Robertson said the task force is looking to strengthen penalties, possibly including suspending or revoking a lobbyist's registration to lobby in the state.

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