JOHN E. O'DONNELL, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, recalls how a well-known lobbyist made an appointment with him after the General Assembly passed one of its periodic ethics reform laws.
When the lobbyist sat down with O'Donnell, he got right to the point: What are the loopholes?
"I looked up at him and said, `That isn't my job,'" O'Donnell said.
O'Donnell's job for the past 22 years has been to ride herd on the ethics practices of some 500 registered lobbyists and 80,000 state employees and officials. But that will end Friday when the 57-year-old civil servant retires to a lakeside home in Edenton, N.C., where the only disclosures he will have to worry about are on a golf scorecard.
His replacement, who will be chosen by the independent State Ethics Commission, has yet to be named. The state has placed newspaper ads seeking a replacement for its first, and so far only, executive director.
With his snow-white hair crowning an otherwise youthful face, O'Donnell has been a highly visible presence in Annapolis - haunting the hearing rooms whenever ethics is discussed, telling legislators what they don't want to hear about a topic they'd rather avoid.
O'Donnell said he's enjoyed his run but won't miss what he calls a "dogcatcher position."
"Your problem is you have a job nobody wants done," he said. "People don't want ethics to impinge on the way people do things."
It has been O'Donnell's job, for instance, to break the bad news to high officials that it would indeed create an appearance of a conflict of interest if they were to take a free vacation at a vendor's beach house.
In a state where the historical definition of conflict of interest sometimes has been something that conflicts with one's own interest, the concept of public perception has sometimes been difficult to get across. But O'Donnell has done so with unfailing patience and good humor. "You couldn't survive in this job for a long time if you didn't have a sense of humor," he said.
He said the most difficult cases are when someone quits a state job and must be told he can't take that lucrative new private sector job because of an employment contract agreement or state "revolving door" law.
O'Donnell said the state's ethics laws have improved considerably since he took the job, and that many of the abuses of the past have faded away.
But he laments that the General Assembly no longer has leaders on ethics issues such as Sen. Julian L. Lapides or Del. Donald B. Robertson.
The low priority state leaders have put on ethics enforcement is reflected in the agency's flat budgets. The commission started with three lawyers and still has three today. A request for an additional lawyer to enforce the newly adopted law regulating lobbyists' activities wasn't granted.
"Harry Hughes is the last governor who could be associated with ethics legislation," O'Donnell said in an interview in the vacant office of the unbudgeted attorney.
O'Donnell is careful to stress that he doesn't make policy; the commission does.
He does concede that he has influenced its decisions over the years.
Asked what changes he'd like to see in the ethics laws, O'Donnell mentioned that it would be helpful if the commission could levy administrative fines against errant officials and state employees - a power it has over lobbyists. But what's more important, he said, is the message that comes from the top.
"We don't need to pass more laws," he said. "What you need is for the political leadership to say we're not going to tolerate any more foolishness."
He said that means that if lobbyists "screw up," their business would be affected, and ethically challenged legislators would lose plum committee assignments and leadership positions.
At last check, the second-leading lobbyist in earnings for the 2001 session is a disbarred attorney with a mail fraud conviction.
"There are people who get in trouble and continue to be successful," O'Donnell said. "That sends a message."
1882 mystery man's name was in State House column
One of the most-talked about names in the State House last week was that of John F. Wiggins. He left more of a mark on the capitol than some lawmakers, yet remains a man of mystery.
In October 1882, Wiggins scribbled his name and age (53) onto two newspapers and tucked them into wooden columns supporting a portico being constructed at the State House's south entrance, overlooking the Annapolis harbor.
Workers dismantling the columns last week as part of a $137,485 restoration discovered the papers, and after chuckling over their contents (the Baltimore American called The Sun "toothless") handed them over to state archivist Edward C. Papenfuse. He called the papers - blackened by age and pocked with insect holes - an "exciting discovery."
Though the state has better-preserved copies of The Sun and the American from the era, the papers offer a clue about one of the workers who constructed the portico.
Papenfuse said he would try to find out who the tradesman worked for by examining invoices and census information.
"I guarantee you," he said, "that in two weeks time, we will know about Wiggins."