Giannetti's actions put him in spotlight

Lawmaker: The Prince George's Democrat's judgment and votes have alienated some, but others praise his work ethic.

General Assembly

March 24, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr. denies knowing about the zoning case his employer lost when he proposed a bill two days later that apparently would have negated the decision. He says he just wanted Marylanders to have the benefit of better cell phone service.

The incident, and subsequent warning from the General Assembly's ethics committee, was the latest commotion surrounding the brash freshman Democrat from Prince George's County.

Gregarious and fun-loving, Giannetti nevertheless has managed to alienate many colleagues and constituents with his voting, judgment and way of doing business.

The bill Giannetti proposed last month would have limited the ability of local governments to regulate cell phone towers. It set off alarms in Annapolis, however, because it would have benefited a valued client of the Washington law firm of Jackson & Campbell, which employs the senator as an attorney.

"That's using his Senate seat to advance his firm's agenda. That makes him the senator from Jackson & Campbell," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland.

A Senate committee swiftly killed the cell tower legislation and another Giannetti bill that would have served the telecommunications industry. Last week, the ethics committee informally advised him that senators should not sponsor legislation that largely benefits his employer's clients or customers.

Those at odds with Giannetti include all three delegates from his legislative district. Though all Democrats, they are talking openly of running a candidate against him in 2006. He, in turn, has threatened to form a slate to defeat them.

Some colleagues, however, say they have been impressed with his energy and willingness to take on challenging topics.

Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, who serves with Giannetti on the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the new senator has brought a lot to the panel. "He's a very bright legislator. He has a great work ethic. He's very enthusiastic and questioning," the Anne Arundel Democrat said.

At 39, Giannetti looks much younger than his age, and at times his exuberance seems out of place in the staid Senate chamber. At one recent session, he ended a tribute to the University of Maryland basketball team by seeking Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's permission to sing the school's fight song. When permission was denied, he recited the lyrics as colleagues chafed in their seats. Giannetti later said he was joking.

The already frosty relations within his district's delegation became chillier after Giannetti's surprise decision -- announced after weeks of public agonizing -- to buck Miller by announcing he would cast the deciding vote against a bill that would have replaced the expiring federal ban on assault weapons with a state ban.

Giannetti further frustrated his fellow Democrats this month by switching his vote on a constitutional amendment to expand the General Assembly's budget powers to match those of most other state legislatures. His defection after a preliminary vote helped give Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. an important victory over legislative leaders.

Such shifts have prompted one of the delegates in his district, Barbara Frush, to dub him "Senator Weathervane."

"We all have issues that we care very deeply about. I can't think of anything John cares deeply about except publicity," Frush said.

While the assault gun bill and amendment vote raised his profile to a new level, Giannetti has long been generating publicity of a less welcome sort. In January, Giannetti used his Senate e-mail account to publicize a purely political volunteer effort on behalf of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in the Iowa Democratic caucuses. The senator later conceded that he should not have used state resources to send the message.

Last October, with the issue of slot machines at racetracks headed for the Senate for a second straight year, Giannetti held a fund-raiser at Laurel Park attended by track owner Joseph A. De Francis, whose political contributions were the subject of a federal probe. The senator, an enthusiastic booster of expanded gambling at Laurel, canceled plans to bring slot machines to the fund-raiser to show how much fun they are.

Common Cause's Browning said the incidents are disturbing. "The pattern is that the senator seems to be ethically challenged," he said.

Giannetti disagrees. "I try very hard to follow all the rules of ethics and I have made mistakes," he said. "As a leader, it's important that you admit your mistakes and I do so."

The most serious ethics questions involve the intermingling of Giannetti's law practice and legislative duties.

Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Montgomery County Democrat, said she had concerns about other Giannetti bills that came before the House Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. In one case, she said, Giannetti brought along a representative of a company his firm represented.

"He was pretty blatant about the witness being his client," Grosfeld said.

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