Legislator-lobbyist ethics must improve

July 23, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

WHEN will they learn? When will state lawmakers understand the damage they inflict on themselves -- and the people of Maryland -- by refusing to change the culture in Annapolis that openly invites lobbyists to taint the legislative process?

Lobbyist and lawmaker have a parasitic relationship in the State House, though it's often difficult to distinguish which is the host and which is the blood-sucking insect.

As the corruption trial of lobbyist Gerard E. Evans and West Baltimore Del. Tony E. Fulton showed, it's a sick relationship.

Too many legislators are eager for lobbyists to fill their campaign coffers with tens of thousands of dollars from their clients -- even if that obligates them to return the favor at a later date.

Too many legislators are anxious for lobbyists to pressure clients for donations to projects and charities in lawmakers' districts.

And too many lobbyists are so intent on winning at any cost in the race for more business that they cut ethical corners and connive with legislators to manipulate the legislative process.

While lobbyists no longer subsidize the good life for lawmakers -- a recent law prohibits wining and dining of legislators -- and the days of under-the-table payments to lawmakers are long gone, there's a new system in vogue: Legislators put pressure on lobbyists to enrich their reelection campaigns.

Even state legislators with safe seats and no opposition squeeze lobbyists for big contributions.

And even the most junior legislators feel emboldened to hold $500-a-ticket events and distribute tickets for sale to the top corps of lobbyists.

Lawmakers also are coercing lobbyists to contribute to their favorite charities. House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. holds a big fund-raiser each year to benefit the Rocky Gap Music Festival. There's a reason every lobbyist of note feels required to attend and sell tickets to his or her clients.

Delegate Fulton claimed in his trial testimony (he was acquitted; Mr. Evans was convicted) that lawmakers often use their power to twist a lobbyist's arm. In essence, he threatened to introduce a bill opposed by paint companies to get them to buy him off.

How? By contributing money to charity programs in his impoverished district. He did it, the delegate said, for the kids of District 40.

It sounded like a Jerry Lewis telethon, with the local emcee encouraging companies to ante up: "OK gang, let's do it for Tony's kids!"

Privately, lobbyists bemoan all this legalized extortion. They feel trapped. But they have done little to end the situation.

Lobbyists are partners in creating this mess. Many of them are so intent on gaining an advantage for a client that they adopt an "anything goes" approach.

So much money is up for grabs that lobbyist competition is cut-throat fierce. For a growing number of them, it's an endless game of "king of the hill."

Proximity to lawmakers is critical. The closer you get, the better.

Is it any wonder that Gerry Evans, the one-time king of the lobbyist hill, stood as godfather for some of Senate President Mike Miller's children? Or that several major clients came Mr. Evans' way after they met with Mr. Miller about bills that had encountered troubles in the Maryland Senate?

Is it any wonder that unregistered lobbyist William Rickman got what he wanted in racing legislation after discussing charity contributions in Western Maryland with Speaker Taylor?

There's no smoking gun for prosecutors to follow. No indictable offenses here. But there's a growing awareness among ordinary citizens that something's amiss.

What takes place would never be condoned by a lobbyist's priest or a legislator's rabbi.

Yet lawmakers continue to turn a blind eye. Here's proof. The indictable offenses that put Mr. Evans and Mr. Fulton on trial in federal court -- fraud, collusion, deception -- were first exposed last winter by The Sun.

Yet when the legislature's ethics committee took up the matter, it didn't even question the two individuals involved. The panel dismissed the allegations out of hand. The message was clear: Such conduct is acceptable in Annapolis.

Honest lawmakers -- that's most of them -- haven't found the courage to erect thick, visible barriers between themselves and those who seek to influence votes.

They have become too dependent on lobbyists to finance their campaigns. They have allowed themselves to be seduced by overtures of friendship and a helping hand.

When a commission led by Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin recommended tougher ethics laws for legislators, resistance was so strong the original bill was watered down.

When Senate President Miller and Speaker Taylor reacted to the Evans-Fulton scandal by introducing a bill banning financial deals between legislators and lobbyists, they got so much grief from their colleagues they settled for a weak substitute to save face.

And when former House Majority Leader Donald B. Robertson presents his panel's recommendations on lobbyist reforms later this year, be prepared for similar resistance from senators and delegates.

They just don't get it. Ethics and legislating ought to go hand in hand. But that would require significant changes in the status quo. Apparently both sides are so comfortable with the situation that they'd rather continue to fight than switch.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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