Ethics panel to summon Miller

Review set for complaint that lawmakers contacted judges about redistricting

July 31, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and four other lawmakers will be summoned before the General Assembly's ethics committee as it looks into their conversations with judges over redistricting lawsuits, the panel decided yesterday.

Meeting behind closed doors for two hours, the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics set guidelines for a review of a complaint that Miller and other senators tried to influence the judges as the judges considered challenges to the redistricting map.

"The purpose of today's meeting was to develop a process for an informal inquiry," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat recently appointed by Miller as a committee co-chairman.

"We're going to set a date when the interviews will take place. ... It was the overwhelming feeling that we wanted to move forward expeditiously and fairly."

In May, the Maryland Court of Appeals notified plaintiffs challenging Gov. Parris N. Glendening's legislative redistricting plan that judges had been contacted by Miller and other legislators to discuss the lawsuits.

"In no instance did, or will, the contact have any influence or bearing on how the judge, or the court, will respond to the issues pending before it," the court wrote.

Last month, state Republican Party Chairman Michael S. Steele filed an ethics complaint against Miller and four other Democratic senators: Clarence W. Blount of Baltimore, Ulysses Currie of Prince George's County, Robert R. Neall of Anne Arundel County and Ida G. Ruben of Montgomery County.

The complaint said the contacts by lawmakers "are highly suggestive of an orchestrated effort to corrupt the judicial process."

Steele has since been selected by Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as his running mate in the campaign for governor. Middleton said yesterday that political overtones make the committee's work sensitive.

"I don't remember in my tenure that we've had a high-profile complaint in an election year," he said. "Our challenge is to separate out the politics from the facts to make sure everyone gets a fair shake."

The work could begin soon, Middleton said, with first interviews tentatively scheduled for Aug. 9.

Steele denied yesterday that his concerns were fueled by partisan motives. "This was an ethical breach, period," he said. "I don't want my position in the campaign to diminish the seriousness of the charge."

After the complaint was filed, the Court of Appeals released a sharply altered map that reduced the number of legislators representing Baltimore. Political observers said the changes were evidence of the court proving it had not been influenced.

Miller has since apologized for his conversations with judges, and released a letter defending his actions and accusing Steele of mischaracterizing the telephone calls.

Middleton ran his first ethics committee meeting yesterday, appointed to fill the vacancy created when former Sen. Michael J. Collins of Essex resigned from the Assembly.

Steele said he remained "suspect" about an inquiry led by a legislator appointed by the subject of the complaint, but Middleton insisted he could be impartial. "I keep in mind what my role is," Middleton said. "The Mike Millers ... will come and go, but the integrity of the legislature is the most important thing."

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