Ethics rules can vary depending on location

Out-of-state meetings with lobbyists allowed

July 28, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Maryland taxpayers will foot the bill next month for about 40 lawmakers to spend five days in Biloxi, Miss., wrestling with such weighty issues as electronic commerce and the aging inmate population.

But on the afternoon of Aug. 7, when legislators from 16 states are scheduled to be discussing those and other topics, Annapolis lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano is offering Maryland senators and delegates the opportunity to play hooky and enjoy a free lunch aboard the schooner Glen Swetman.

"It is legal, lawful entertainment of Maryland legislators," Bereano said.

He is correct. And under Maryland law, the lobbyist won't even have to disclose which lawmakers went cruising and schmoozing at his expense during the Southern Legislative Conference.

Neither will the legislators, who last year granted themselves an explicit exception from state ethics law for out-of-state gatherings.

The law, developed by a reform commission headed by U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat, prohibited lobbyists from buying meals and giving gifts to legislators in most instances. But it allowed certain exceptions - including the one that allows them to wine and dine lawmakers attending out-of-state conferences.

Bereano is one of several Annapolis lobbyists who will be in Biloxi taking advantage of a provision that crept into the 1999 legislative ethics reform law.

J. William Pitcher, Dennis McCoy and former Sen. Laurence Levitan - all heavy hitters of the State House lobbying corps - will be among those joining Bereano in holding "Maryland Night" for legislators at the renowned Porterhouse steakhouse. Ira Cooke, another prominent lobbyist, will be holding his own dinner gathering.

Maryland lobbyists have been pampering legislators at out-of-state conferences for as long as most can remember. But when reform legislation was proposed in 1999, it looked as if the party might end.

Thanks to a late amendment to the bill, legislators can continue to accept the lobbyists' hospitality - and they were relieved of the obligation to report the freebies to the State Ethics Commission. Lobbyists, meanwhile, have to report only the total sum they spend on an event.

The SLC meeting usually attracts dozens of Maryland legislators drawn by policy interests, camaraderie with other lawmakers and recreational events. So far, 25 delegates and 16 senators - all but three from the majority Democratic Party - have signed up to attend the conference Aug. 5 to 9.

Bereano said he expects a full house when his schooner, with a capacity of 49, pulls out of the Beau Rivage Marina about 1 p.m. that Monday. He said Maryland legislators - along with lobbying clients and lawmakers from other states - will be among the passengers.

The lobbyist said his four-hour cruise was scheduled so it wouldn't interfere with the conference. But Colleen Cousineau, executive director of the SLC, said there is a heavy schedule of committee meetings that are open to all participants that afternoon.

"All Monday is a workday," she said.

Kathleen Skullney, executive director of the citizen watchdog group Common Cause/Maryland, said the exception provides "absolutely no accountability" for legislators.

"If they're down there on public money, how can they even think of going on a lobbyist's cruise instead of attending the business meetings?" she said.

The provision that allows lawmakers to accept free meals, free drinks and a free cruise while out of state is one of the stranger features of Maryland's convoluted ethics laws.

William Somerville, the General Assembly's chief ethics counsel, said the cruise is exempt from the law banning gifts from lobbyists to legislators because it will come while the lawmakers are on a state-paid trip. If legislators were paying their own way to an independent legislative conference, they would not be allowed to accept such largess, he said.

The cruise itself might be considered a gift if food and drinks are not served, Somerville said. Because they will be, he said, the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics will see the cruise as legal.

Out-of-state conferences such as the Biloxi gathering and this month's meeting in Chicago of the National Conference of State Legislators were exempted from the gift ban through an amendment inserted by a conference committee in the waning days of the 1999 General Assembly session.

The exception had the blessing of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, both of whom served as conferees on the bill.

Miller said the exception is similar to one that allows lobbyists to hold receptions or dinners in Maryland to which all legislators, whole committees or regional delegations are invited.

He said disclosure is not necessary for such events because they are open to all legislators, whether friends or foes of the lobbyists' clients. The purpose of disclosure, he said, is to discourage one-on-one meetings with lobbyists and gatherings to which only a select group of lawmakers is invited.

Miller, vice chairman of the conference, said he will not be on the Bereano cruise because he will be working. But he said he saw nothing wrong with other legislators accepting the hospitality of the lobbyist, who was disbarred last year as a result of a 1994 conviction for mail fraud.

Skullney said it's obvious that big-money business is being conducted at other such events. "You would have to be in some kind of Wonderland to think that this kind of schmoozing should not fall under the ethics law," she said.

But Levitan, who will represent the firm of Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver, said there is nothing "sinister" about the lobbyist-sponsored events.

"Does it build good will? I guess so. Does it influence anybody to do anything in particular? I would hope not," he said.

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