Abuse of power

August 20, 2002

AFTER SERVING as state Senate president longer than anyone in Maryland history, a symbol of government was named in his honor.

So it's even more troubling that Senator Thomas V. Mike Miller's name now appears on a letter of reprimand from the General Assembly's ethics committee.

The panel found that Sen. Miller, after whom the new Senate office building was recently named, gave the appearance of attempting to influence appeals court judges as they considered a challenge to the state's new legislative district map - a map that Sen. Miller and his colleagues drew.

By calling the judges while their review was under way, Sen. Miller abused his power, the panel concluded, and contributed to the "erosion of public confidence in the operation of government."

The verdict was predictable since the phone calls got much media attention. But the wording was condemning enough to suggest real concern among Democrats - as well as eager Republicans - that ethical lapses are an issue in this year's election.

As a lawyer, the committee observed, Sen. Miller knows the rules: You don't call judges at work on cases in which you have an interest. He acted as if the rules didn't apply to him. He seemed to be following another maxim: Political power is there to be used, no matter the rules.

Sen. Miller still insists he did nothing wrong, even as he acknowledges he made the calls. The lawyerly distinction he's making apparently lies in precisely what was said. But the committee quite properly concluded that the calls were wrong whatever the content.

Surely Sen. Miller is engaging in the usual counterattacking bombast, but he complains that "slash and burn" Republicans are out to get him. Perhaps so. But they didn't make the phone calls. They are taking political advantage Sen. Miller handed them. Their broadsides have the wonderful virtue of being on target.

If Sen. Miller truly believes he did nothing wrong, he has slipped into a cloud of ethical disorientation. That's often what happens when power goes unchallenged for so long.

Republicans, then, must be praised. It's clearly necessary for some legislators to get a refresher in proper behavior - even after a succession of slips in Annapolis. These are lawmakers, after all. If they don't know the law, they should look for other work.

The ethics panel deserves recognition, too. Its procedures can seem slow and, sometimes, too lenient. But in this case, the committee members made the right call.

And they didn't duck the broader issue or the power of the legislator they censured. Sen. Miller's blame game can only sustain the erosion of trust.

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