Confronting the culture of corruption

October 20, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

IT TRULY is a great country -- even greater if you're a lobbyist in Annapolis.

You can make a ton of money. And, until recently, you could go to jail for political corruption, lose your law license and still make half a million dollars a year by returning to the scene of your crime.

Your old clients hired you back before you were out of the halfway house.

But 10 days ago, for the first time, the State Ethics Commission actually denied a lobbying license. And ethics are an issue in the current gubernatorial campaign.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. promise to be leaders of character. It's a start.

Here's what they're up against.

After the last big lobbyist fraud trial in July 2000, a federal judge decried what he called a "culture of corruption" in the state capitol.

The lobbyist, Gerard E. Evans, and a legislator, Del. Tony E. Fulton of Baltimore, were accused of concocting a scheme to force big fees out of paint companies. Mr. Fulton filed a bill that would have made it easier to sue these companies and lobbyist Evans offered to have the bill killed in return for a big payday. The alleged scheme included a $10,000 real estate fee steered by Mr. Evans to Delegate Fulton.

The delegate was acquitted. Then he said this sort of dealing was typical in Annapolis.

Lobbyist Evans was ordered to repay $139,000 to the companies he bilked, and went to jail. Two years earlier, he had made more than $1 million. His friends and acquaintances included state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and AttorneyGeneral J. Joseph Curran Jr., for whom Mr. Evans was a campaign manager. This would be the short list of his connections.

By the time he got out of jail, though, the General Assembly had enacted real lobbying reform. Nevertheless, the Annapolis establishment assumed Mr. Evans would be back at his old stand when the legislature convened in January. It had happened before with lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano.

But the ethics panel said no -- even after the attorney general's office ruled the new law could not be used retroactively. Mr. Curran had recused himself from this matter because of his earlier political relationship with Mr. Evans.

So here was a case in which one of the legislature's presiding officers, the attorney general and a legislator were brought into the loop, directly or indirectly.

It's not just lobbyists that operate on the edge in this culture. One set of reforms was passed when lobbyists demanded it: legislators were hounding them to make and arrange campaign contributions.

The culture pervades.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening waged an unsuccessful and unseemly campaign to win the $375,000-a-year state chancellor's job -- a job awarded by members of the state university system's Board of Regents, men and women he had appointed.

Mr. Miller, the Senate president, called to "yell" at court of appeals judges while they were deciding if this year's redistricting plan was constitutional; lawyers don't call the judges working on their cases.

Politicians of both parties condone the gross political manipulation of redistricting. Designed to create pure democracy, it promotes pure partisanship, and everyone signs on.

Some say "culture of corruption" unfairly stigmatizes the vast majority of lawmakers and lobbyists. True. And, for the most part, the term does not refer to actual law breaking -- not bribing, or extorting or stealing. It's more about a low-grade fever of self-dealing that distorts the process.

And not without damage. Mr. Miller's phone calls helped persuade the judges to draw their own redistricting map. The judicial plan undid regional alliances approved by the General Assembly 10 years ago. Redistricting is a political, not a judicial, function. But the judges had no choice.

It may not be possible to cut this Gordian knotof conflicts.

Ms. Townsend, whose public career was rescued when Mr. Glendening made her his lieutenant governor, promises change. She points to her selection of retired Adm. Charles R. Larson as proof of her determination to step beyond the legislature's ethos. She is, of course, a woman -- and some believe that fact alone will force change in the culture.

Mr. Ehrlich, too, would come to the culture as an insider -- and outsider. He's a Republican, so he could upset the Democratic apple cart in ways a political party understands: He would put Republicans in jobs Maryland Democrats assume they will hold at least until death. He's a former member of the House of Delegates -- and a close friend of lobbyist Bereano -- so he knows the game.

Both candidates should think about concrete ways to filter out the vapors of amorality piped into the Annapolis air supply.

Former Sen. Julian L. "Jack" Lapides of Baltimore refused to get on elevators with some lobbyists. Democratic U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a former House of Delegates speaker, used to drive home every night to take out the garbage, hoping to keep himself in perspective.

Whatever works. Law and reform matter. But, at the end of day, it's all about integrity.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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