Lobby work questioned

Mandel advocacy efforts appear to conflict with Board of Regents post

March 19, 2006|By ANDREW A. GREEN | ANDREW A. GREEN,SUN REPORTER

Former Gov. Marvin Mandel registered as a lobbyist for the insurance industry after being appointed in 2003 to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, despite a legal prohibition against doing so that could earn him a reprimand.

And he is now at the center of liquor wholesalers' efforts to block a bill allowing local wineries to sell directly to restaurants and retailers. He testified March 7 against the bill in a Senate committee hearing, has met with and written to key legislators, and has represented the wholesalers' interests in a task force meeting of legislators, winemakers and others.

This time, Mandel has not registered, asserting in an interview that he is acting as a lawyer, not a lobbyist, for the Licensed Beverage Distributors of Maryland and that he is paid for representing the industry in that capacity.

"I represent a client I have represented for years," he said. "Nothing that I'm doing is in violation of anything. I am an attorney for the association. Whenever the association has a problem, I represent them, give them my opinion. I can give other people my opinion. I'm not getting paid any extra for it."

State law defines a lobbyist as someone who "for the purpose of influencing any legislative action" communicates "with an official or employee of the Legislative Branch or Executive Branch in the presence of that official or employee."

Anyone who "knowingly and willfully" violates the statute can be found guilty of a misdemeanor, jailed for up to a year and fined $10,000. In addition, a public official or employee found by the state Ethics Commission or a court to have violated the lobbying code can be removed from office or subjected to other disciplinary action.

D. Bruce Poole, a former delegate and former ethics commission member, said that, in general, the law requires anyone who receives compensation to influence legislation to register as a lobbyist. Whether a person also serves as an attorney for a group that is advocating a position on a bill doesn't matter, he said.

"The essence of it is, are you attempting to influence the outcome of the legislation or legislative action?" Poole said. "Even if you come down to speak or explain something, if it's affecting the legislative action and you were, in fact, being compensated, usually there is a requirement of registration."

The lobbying law requires anyone who earns at least $2,500 cumulatively from all employers for lobbying to register with the Ethics Commission within five days of beginning his efforts, said Suzanne S. Fox, the executive director of the commission.

Under scrutiny

Mandel is the second member of the Board of Regents to come under scrutiny for his dealings with legislators. Earlier this year, news reports mentioned meetings attended by board Chairman David H. Nevins, the senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Constellation Energy Group, that lawmakers and watchdog groups say amounted to a violation of the lobbying ban. The matter is being reviewed by the state Ethics Commission and a regents subcommittee.

Nevins attended meetings with legislative leaders and top executives from Constellation and FPL Group Inc., the Florida utility that is buying BGE's parent company. Discussions of the merger are a major focus of the current legislative session, but Nevins has said he does not think his involvement constituted lobbying.

Mandel, who was appointed to the Board of Regents in 2003, earned more than $26,000 in 2003 and 2004 as a registered lobbyist representing a group he identified as the Independent Insurance Agents Association. Previously, he registered as a liquor industry lobbyist in 2001 and 2002 when other legislation regulating wine sales was under consideration.

A 1999 law regulating regents' conduct carries a reprimand for lobbying, which it broadly defines: "A member of the Board of Regents shall not, for compensation, assist or represent any party in any matter before the General Assembly."

It was passed after a lobbying scandal involving the then-chairman of the Board of Regents, Lance W. Billingsley, who traded on his connections with Gov. Parris N. Glendening to build a lobbying practice.

Mandel, 85, became governor in 1969 after Spiro T. Agnew became vice president. Mandel was then elected to two terms but temporarily stepped down as governor in 1977 amid charges of mail fraud and racketeering that resulted in his conviction in federal court. He returned briefly to finish his term in 1979 after an appeals court panel vacated his conviction. Another appeals court panel subsequently reinstated it. He served 19 months of a three-year prison sentence until his sentence was commuted by President Ronald Reagan in late 1981. His conviction was overturned for good in 1988, and he was readmitted to the practice of law the next year.

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