Goodbye, Mr. Evans

January 29, 2003

LOBBYIST Gerard E. Evans - a hail fellow well-suited to the work of passing and defeating bills - earned upward of $1 million a year in Annapolis. Then he went beyond affability. He cobbled up a phony legislative threat to corporate profits while offering to kill the offending measure for a fee. The U.S. attorney called it fraud and alleged that a legislator helped.

Del. Tony E. Fulton of Baltimore, the legislator in question, was acquitted. Mr. Evans was not; he was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in federal prison.

In sentencing Mr. Evans in September 2000, U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz said the case illustrated a "culture of corruption" in the state capital. That damning phrase has echoed through Assembly halls ever since, prompting the state's first lobbyist licensing and regulation law.

Now we will learn if those reforms will work. Because, though the State Ethics Commission denied him a license, Mr. Evans is back at his old stand, representing clients in all the usual Annapolis venues.

He has appealed the ruling in court, arguing that the commission may not apply the Assembly's licensing law - passed in response to his felonious activities - retroactively. Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.'s office agreed with him, in part, saying the Assembly did not intend to make the law retroactive.

The commission disagrees. Its members believe they had sufficient authority to deny the license. The case is certain to reach the appeals level, leaving Mr. Evans in business until there is a final verdict.

The stakes are high for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the Assembly. Did Mr. Ehrlich mean it when he promised to root out corruption? Can the Assembly change aspects of its culture that corrupt?

The State Ethics Commission, whose members are lawyers and former legislators, believes its charter permits - and circumstances demand - the firmest action. That makes sense: If a lobbyist convicted of corrupting the process can return so easily to the legislative field - even after reform efforts triggered by his felony - the Assembly will seem impotent.

Lobbying can be an honorable and necessary facet of lawmaking. But for those who have shown a profound disrespect for their profession and the process they serve, jail alone is too mild a sanction.

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