Controls on state lobbying pushed

Task force proposes licensing system, reported donations

Several scandals addressed

September 14, 2000|By Greg Garland and Michael Dresser | Greg Garland and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A state task force is recommending sweeping changes to Maryland's lobbying laws, including establishing a licensing system that would leave lobbyists open to tough sanctions if they engaged in misconduct.

If approved by the General Assembly, the proposed changes would allow the State Ethics Commission to suspend or revoke a lobbyist's registration to work in Annapolis. The commission also could impose steep fines for wrongdoing.

The licensing measure, favored by some top legislators, including House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., won approval with little discussion at a meeting last night of the Study Commission on Lobbyist Ethics.

The panel rejected a proposal by Chairman Donald B. Robertson, a former House majority leader, to ban political contributions by registered lobbyists and to severely restrict their attendance at fund-raisers. But it unanimously endorsed a proposal that would require such lobbyists to report their donations to candidates for the legislature or for statewide office.

The task force also decided to drop all efforts to impose lobbying restrictions or reporting obligations on local governments or organizations representing municipalities and counties.

Kathleen Skullney, head of a government watchdog group, called the report "a mixed bag," but said "there are some very important parts that are going forward."

The task force, which includes key lawmakers, lobbyists and representatives of the public, was created last year by the General Assembly to review lobbying laws in the wake of several scandals.

In the most recent, lobbyist Gerard E. Evans was convicted of federal mail fraud charges in a case involving his lobbying activities.

Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, said the task force's recommendation to, in effect, license lobbyists and set a code of conduct with significant penalties for violators was especially significant.

"For the first time, there are meaningful sanctions being proposed for lobbyists who violate the ethics laws," she said.

Robertson expressed disappointment that the commission turned down the ban on political contributions by lobbyists.

"I don't think that the reporting requirement gets to the heart of the problem we were attempting to address with the prohibition, but it is a step forward," he said.

Skullney said the code of conduct the task force is recommending could help address problems that arise from intense competition among lobbyists in Annapolis for clients and fees.

"If you can eliminate some of the cutthroat competition, you are probably going to eliminate some of the serious abuses," she said.

The task force's recommendations will be considered during the annual legislative session that starts in January.

The recommendation on licensing would greatly expand the authority of the State Ethics Commission to regulate lobbyists.

It would give the commission authority to suspend, for up to three years, the registration of any lobbyist who violated state law regulating their behavior. The commission could take that step if necessary "to protect the public interest and the integrity of the governmental process."

The commission also would have the authority to revoke the registration of a lobbyist who "has been convicted of bribery, theft, or other crime involving moral turpitude."

The measure appeared aimed at addressing situations such as the one involving lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, who in 1999 lobbied on behalf of clients from a halfway house where he was serving time on a federal felony conviction for mail fraud.

Under the proposal, the commission could reinstate a lobbyist whose registration had been revoked or suspended if the panel later decided that was appropriate.

The types of actions that could lead to tough sanctions are spelled out, in part, in a code of conduct section of the task force proposal.

One provision targets "bell ringing" - a practice that was at the heart of the federal fraud case against Evans.

The term refers to the practice of a lobbyist getting legislation introduced for purposes of opposing it in an attempt to make money from clients who want the legislation killed.

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