The culture club

October 21, 2005

TO THOSE WHO SAY Maryland has seen too many public corruption scandals, we offer the immortal words of Spiro T. Agnew: Nolo contendere. Former state Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas L. Bromwell's indictment on federal racketeering charges is a sad reminder that the claim of a "culture of corruption" in Annapolis is not without merit. And while it's touching to hear our state leaders voice their concern for the well-being of Mr. Bromwell and his family, it would be even more comforting to hear that they're just as worried about the integrity of Maryland's government.

The indictments of Mr. Bromwell, who was a powerful figure in the State House; his wife, Mary Pat; and former Poole and Kent Co. President W. David Stoffregen suggest that a state senator can muster an awful lot of influence on behalf of a state contractor. Prosecutors describe the Baltimore County Democrat as behaving like a hired gun for Poole and Kent, using his influence to steer the company lucrative state contracts and intervening when disputes arose. In return, they charge, he accepted tens of thousands of dollars in payments, not counting about $85,000 worth of construction on his home.

Mr. Bromwell, 56, claims to be innocent, and he will have his day in court. But the case raises some disturbing questions. For instance, how can a senator - even an influential committee chairman - wield so much clout in the state procurement process? Aren't there protections in place? And why didn't Mr. Bromwell's colleagues blow the whistle? Or is it possible that this is business as usual in Maryland's capital?

Surely, no politician wants to be associated with corruption. Yet on Campus Annapolis, influence-peddling is treated with all the seriousness of a fraternity prank. The list of State House figures who have seen the inside of a prison cell, from Gov. Marvin Mandel to lobbyist Gerard E. Evans, and then happily returned to the fold is sizable. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. made noise about this problem when he ran for office - but then found jobs for Mr. Mandel and some other ethically challenged pols, including Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris.

To prevent future scandals, politicians need to pay more than lip service to the problem. Passing rules similar to New Jersey's "pay to play" law that severely limits campaign donations from government contractors and their lobbyists would be helpful. So would restricting donors' use of multiple limited liability corporations and partnerships to bypass campaign finance laws. But we won't hold our breath. In Annapolis, they don't seem to notice anything particularly unusual is going on.

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