Ethics bill moves ahead

State House leaders strongly back plan to license lobbyists

First hearing yesterday

Measure evolved from scandals of past several years

January 18, 2001|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

With the memory of the General Assembly's last political scandal still fresh in their minds, legislative leaders are pushing for quick passage of a bill to bring Maryland's lobbyists under greater state scrutiny.

The proposal, which had its first hearing in Annapolis yesterday, has strong support from State House leaders.

"It is as close to perfection as you can get," House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. told a joint meeting of the House Commerce and Government Matters and Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs committees. "We're here to protect our reputations. Our reputations as public officials are the most sacred things we have."

The legislation would in effect establish Maryland's first licensing system for lobbyists. Under the bill, lobbyists who violated state ethics laws could be fined as much as $5,000, have their licenses suspended for as long as three years or be banned from doing business in the State House. Those suspended would have to apply to the State Ethics Commission before being reinstated.

The proposal also would require lobbyists to attend a training session on the ethics laws every two years and to file reports with the state disclosing campaign contributions to legislators. Another provision would ban "bell-ringing," a political maneuver in which a lobbyist arranges to introduce a bill to get business from clients who would be hurt by the measure.

The licensing measure grew out of several scandals of the past several years, most recently the conviction last summer of Gerard E. Evans. Once a star in Annapolis lobbying circles, Evans is serving a 2 1/2 -year federal sentence for trying to defraud his clients in a bell-ringing scheme.

In 1994, Bruce C. Bereano, another high-profile lobbyist, was convicted of mail fraud for overbilling his clients to get money for campaign contributions. He resumed his lobbying practice after serving five months in a federal halfway house.

State House leaders responded to Evans' indictment by appointing a task force to recommend legislation to regulate the lobbying corps. They tapped Donald B. Robertson, a former majority leader in the House of Delegates, to oversee the study. The task force's proposal led to the bill before the Assembly.

At yesterday's hearing, the bill's supporters pointed out that while it has strict enforcement measures, no provisions exist for increased funding of the Ethics Commission. About $200,000 would be necessary to provide additional staff and computer resources to carry out the bill's provisions, legislative analysts said.

Half the money would be used to computerize required filings by lobbyists and to post the information on the Internet. John E. O'Donnell, executive director of the ethics panel, said he would not support the bill unless the money is provided.

Lobbyists are an influential, integral and well-paid part of State House politics. The top members of the profession earn hundreds of thousands of dollars during the annual 90-day session. More than 600 registered with the Ethics Commission during the lobbying year that ended Oct. 31, 1999. They spent $23.5 million representing their clients in Annapolis that year, according to the commission.

Yesterday's hearing was free of dissension or debate. Both Taylor and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. spoke in support of the bill.

Taylor urged that the bill be brought to a quick vote and delivered to the governor for his signature. But Sen. Clarence M. Blount, chairman of the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, said that while he supports the bill, he is not eager to rush it through his committee.

Still, Blount said, he did not expect the bill to have major problems winning passage.

In Annapolis

Today's highlights

10 a.m. Senate meets, Senate chamber.

10 a.m. House of Delegates meets, House chamber.

10:30 a.m. House Judiciary and Appropriations committees, briefing by Juvenile Justice Secretary Bishop L. Robinson, Joint Hearing Room, Legislative Services Building.

1 p.m. Senate House Commerce and Government Matters Committee, briefing on red-light cameras, Room 140, Lowe House Office Building.

Assembly hearings

The Sun is again offering a free fax broadcast of schedules for Maryland General Assembly committee hearings. To use this service, you must have a fax machine that can answer automatically. Hearing schedules will be transmitted over the weekend for the following week's hearings.

To sign up for the service, call SunDial at 410-783-1800 and enter code 7575.

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