State ethics panel to rebuke Miller for calling judges

Senate president spoke to two of remapping case

Currie sanctioned

four cleared

August 17, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The General Assembly's ethics committee said yesterday that it will reprimand Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, saying he "abused his position" in calling two judges hearing lawsuits against the state's redistricting plan.

In a series of confidential letters released by Republicans to the news media, the committee also said it will issue a less severe admonition to state Sen. Ulysses Currie of Prince George's County. The panel decided not to sanction four other state lawmakers who contacted Court of Appeals judges deliberating on redistricting.

The committee found no evidence of an orchestrated effort to influence Maryland's highest court. But Miller "contributed to the erosion of public confidence in the operation of state government," the committee wrote in a letter sent yesterday to him and to state GOP Chairman Michael S. Steele, who filed the ethics complaint.

"In view of Senator Miller's knowledge of the rules regarding ex-parte communications, and his inherent power as Senate President, the committee concludes that he abused his position in the General Assembly," the panel wrote.

Miller said he accepts the committee's decision. But he criticized state Republicans for filing the complaints, likening the party's tactics to those of Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare of the 1950s.

"I did nothing legally, morally or ethically wrong," Miller said. "I think that this is a product of right-wing Republican slash-and-burn tactics."

The committee of eight Democrats and four Republicans - composed of an equal number of senators and delegates - heard a full day of testimony Aug. 9 from Miller and the five other lawmakers, then spent 9 1/2 hours deliberating behind closed doors Thursday. Committee members are prohibited from publicly discussing the findings from their confidential proceedings.

"I am not going to comment on anything that was before us," said state Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and committee co-chairman.

Besides Miller and Currie, the lawmakers who were the subject of Steele's complaint were state Sens. Ida G. Ruben of Montgomery County, Clarence W. Blount of Baltimore and Robert R. Neall of Anne Arundel, and Del. Ruth M. Kirk of Baltimore. All are Democrats.

Miller, Ruben, Blount and Currie had conversations with judges, while Neall and Kirk wrote letters to the court.

The contacts by the lawmakers occurred as the Court of Appeals was considering legal challenges to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's legislative redistricting map. The court later rejected the map as unconstitutional and drew its own plan, creating re-election chaos for many veteran lawmakers.

As the court was deliberating, it issued two unprecedented public statements revealing the contacts by lawmakers. The judges said they cut off the conversations as soon as it became apparent that the legislators wanted to discuss redistricting.

The lawmakers have said they don't believe they did anything wrong. Several said they were simply seeking information on how the legal process worked. Nevertheless, Steele filed an ethics complaint and accused Miller of leading an attempt to influence the court's decision.

Though Ruben told the committee that Miller suggested she call a judge, the panel "found no compelling evidence that the senators named in the complaint engaged in an orchestrated effort to corrupt the judicial process and achieve a particular political outcome."

The committee also found that the contacts by Ruben, Blount, Neall and Kirk were so brief or minor that they don't warrant any disciplinary action or further investigation.

Kirk said last night that she was pleased the committee recognized that she had not intended to do anything wrong. Blount, Neall and Ruben did not return telephone messages.

But the committee found that Currie - chairman of the Senate subcommittee that has authority over the judiciary's budget - had, like Miller, "contributed to the erosion of public confidence in the operation of state government" because of his conversation with Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.

The committee said it intends to send him a letter of admonition. Currie did not return telephone messages left at his home last night.

As it considered Steele's complaint, the ethics committee had a wide range of options for punishment, up to calling for expulsion - a step not taken since the Senate expelled Sen. Larry Young in 1998.

Miller said last night that he had not seen the committee's letter because it was delivered to his State House office while he spent yesterday working in his Prince George's law firm.

But he defended his phone calls to the judges, saying they were about an earlier ruling in the case - not the court's pending decision. He suggested that non-lawyers on the ethics committee didn't understand the fine legal distinction.

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