Call in the FBI to clean house

July 31, 2000|By Tim Baker

THE recent federal fraud trial of lobbyist Gerard E. Evans and state Delegate Tony E. Fulton has exposed once again the seamy underside of business as usual in Maryland's General Assembly.

There were $500 bull roast tickets, tens of thousands of dollars in political contributions, and even larger donations to key legislators' favorite charities. This is how lobbyists grease the skids in our state legislature.

We've seen it all before. The fraud trial of lobbyist Bruce Bereano several years ago is one example. But neither his nor Evans' federal criminal conviction has spurred our legislative leaders to do much of anything effective about the venal political subculture in Annapolis.

Last year, the legislators did finally prohibit lobbyists from buying them drinks, dinners and sports tickets, but at the same time they slipped in a little-noticed exception eliminating restrictions on out-of-state entertainment -- an exception through which Mr. Bereano will sail a 68-foot luxury schooner next month when he entertains about 40 Maryland legislators at the Southern Legislative Conference on the Gulf of Mexico.

Last week, a legislative task force tried to deal with the more serious problem -- political contributions -- by prohibiting lobbyists from making them. But the reactions of Maryland legislators ranged from skepticism to outright dismissal.

So, in the absence of any meaningful drive for reform in our General Assembly, I recommend that the U.S. attorney take over the responsibility for cleaning house. Federal prosecutors should convene a special federal grand jury to conduct a comprehensive criminal investigation of the relationships between lobbyists and legislators in Maryland.

Begin by subpoenaing from the top 50 lobbyists all of their documents that relate to anything of value which either they or their clients have given, contributed, or donated, directly or indirectly, to any member of the General Assembly in the past five years. Simultaneously subpoena the same kinds of documents from every state legislator.

FBI agents could then create a chart showing what each legislator has received from each lobbyist and his or her clients. That list will produce a clear picture of all the different means by which lobbyists have curried our legislators' favor.

Will it show that our elected representatives are all crooks? Of course not. Most of them, I believe, are honest, decent and scrupulous public servants.

But we might be surprised at how far the sleaze has spread. Power can corrupt, and the State House's squalid ethical atmosphere can seduce.

Without strict rules, some legislators have been unable to resist the temptation to connive with lobbyists to manipulate the legislative process.

A complete compilation of all the benefits would, I predict, reveal some surprising accumulations, especially for those who can use their leadership positions both to lure benefactors and exact tribute. Once the greediest are identified, then look to see what legislative favors they may have dispensed in the same time period.

A complete list of benefits would also destroy forever the lame excuse which our solons in Annapolis have used for years to defend their sordid give-and-take relationship with lobbyists. These legislative apologists try to divert our attention by pointing only to individual items.

What's wrong with a friend buying a few lousy tickets to my bull roast? Of course their clients contribute to my campaign and donate to charities in my district. They're only supporting good government, and I'm only trying to help my people. Would anyone other than jaded Common Cause do-gooders even suggest that anybody was trying to influence a conscientious legislator?

Each gift, ticket, or contribution might seem insignificant when examined by itself. But a complete list would answer this sophistry by putting all these items together. For some legislators, a comprehensive list may show a cumulative pattern of conduct in which particular lobbyists and their clients have given them a substantial flow of benefits which are matched by a corresponding flow of legislative favors.

Could this conduct constitute bribery? The legal basis is there.

For the past 30 years federal criminal law has upheld bribery convictions based on patterns of benefits and favors flowing back and forth between public officials and those seeking their official action. In the early 1970s, exactly such evidence led to the zoning corruption convictions of the chairman of the Prince George's County commissioners and the county's largest developer.

It all depends on how extensive a pattern prosecutors can prove. A few Redskins tickets would never send anybody to prison, but everybody realizes that lobbyists treat legislators even to these trinkets in order to influence them.

A cumulative pattern of goodies, which included substantial political contributions, could persuade jurors that the prosecution has proved bribery, especially if prosecutors can show other indications of corruption -- a web of lies, secret meetings, mysteriously missing documents, patently dishonest explanations.

A grand jury investigation will be difficult and controversial. Expect a furious legislative outrage -- the same accusations of hobnail-boot persecution which have greeted every federal political corruption conviction of state officials in Maryland history. But since our legislative leaders have abdicated their responsibilities, federal prosecutors ought to take on the job.

Tim Baker was the U.S. attorney for Maryland from 1978 to 1981. He writes from Columbia.

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