Regents' lobby activity faulted

Md. legislators say prohibited advocacy hurts board's image

tougher rules sought

March 21, 2006|By ANDREW A. GREEN | ANDREW A. GREEN,SUN REPORTER

Revelations about improper lobbying by two members of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents have seriously damaged the image of one of the state's most prestigious volunteer posts, leading lawmakers said yesterday.

The Sun reported Sunday that former Gov. Marvin Mandel has been working to kill a bill affecting one of his law clients despite the state's prohibition on lobbying by regents. The report came a month after questions about meetings at which Regents Chairman David Nevins introduced his bosses at Constellation Energy to top lawmakers.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said the regents need a full-time ethics counsel because their members have crossed the line too often.

"We ought to assign an ethics counsel to the Board of Regents just like we have for the legislature, so they know exactly where the line is," Busch said. "This has come up with more than one person."

Del. Frank S. Turner, a Howard County Democrat who chairs the subcommittee overseeing the university system's budget, said yesterday that too little is being done to enforce the ethics laws for the regents. More rules are needed, he said, to make sure their attention is focused on their higher education duties.

Turner testified before a House committee on a bill he is sponsoring to bar regents from political fundraising - a prohibition that he said is just one step the state needs to take to rein in the board's activities.

One regent, Richard E. Hug, is a top fundraiser for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"Every time I pick up the newspaper, it's another thing the Board of Regents is involved in," Turner said. "We need to bring the prestige back to Maryland, the dignity back to Maryland. ... Enough is enough."

`Nothing new'

Hug said he was surprised by the bill because his role as finance chairman for the Ehrlich campaign was well known before he was appointed.

"I went through two Senate confirmation hearings, one when I was [initially] appointed and one two years later, and both times the Senate was aware of my activity as finance chairman for the Ehrlich campaign," Hug said. "This is nothing new."

The latest ethics questions about a member of the board concern Mandel, who is at the center of liquor wholesalers' efforts to stop legislation that would allow small wineries to sell directly to restaurants and retailers.

Mandel is not registered as a lobbyist for the group but has testified against a wineries bill in a Senate committee. He has also written to and met with key lawmakers and represented the wholesalers' interests in a work group meeting with legislators.

Mandel said last week that he has done nothing wrong. He said the liquor wholesalers are a longtime law client and that he represents their interests in that capacity.

What defines lobbying

But Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican who chairs the subcommittee that handles liquor legislation, said the lobbying definition in the regents' ethics code leaves Mandel little wiggle room.

"I think what Gov. Mandel has been doing would fall under the definition of lobbying," Harris said. "Even representing an organization on a bill before the assembly would fall under that."

Lobbying without a license is punishable with a fine of up to $10,000 or a jail sentence of up to a year. State officials who violate lobbying law can also be removed from their posts.

A 1999 law required the Board of Regents to adopt a ban on lobbying. Penalties for violating the prohibition are lesser - a regent can be reprimanded - but the restrictions are broader. The board's ethics code says, "A member of the Board of Regents shall not, for compensation, assist or represent any party in any matter before the General Assembly."

For most of his time as a regent, Mandel registered as a lobbyist for a group he identified as the Independent Insurance Agents Association, earning more than $26,000 to lobby on insurance bills before the legislature.

Mandel said he is paid an annual fee by the liquor wholesalers to act as their attorney but does not receive extra pay for any advocacy before the legislature. He did not say how much he is paid.

In 2002, a year before Ehrlich appointed him to the Board of Regents, Mandel registered as a lobbyist for the wholesalers and was paid $10,000 to lobby on liquor bills.

`On the up and up'

Proper registration for lobbyists is crucial because of the tremendous influence they can wield over legislation, said Bobbie Walton, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a public interest watchdog group. People need to be able to find out who lobbyists work for and how much a special interest or organization is paying them, Walton said.

"Disclosure lets you know when things are on the up and up and when they might not be," she said.

The state Ethics Commission and the Audit Committee of the Board of Regents have both taken up inquiries into Nevins' activities.

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