Monumental mistake

March 22, 2006

Politicians and ethics always seem to be at odds, but in Maryland they're downright irreconcilable. How else to describe the various shenanigans uncovered lately, from Baltimore's City Council to the University of Maryland's Board of Regents? The latest indiscretion involves the Maryland Insurance Administration and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who together found a way to simultaneously reward Mr. Steele's supporters and ignore many worthy African-American charities. Even by Maryland political standards, this is an impressive level of folly.

The problem arose from a 2004 financial settlement to the state. Maryland-based Monumental Life Insurance gave then-Maryland Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr. the authority to disburse $250,000 to settle claims of race-based pricing policies. Mr. Redmer sought advice from Mr. Steele over how best to spend the money.

It appears that Mr. Steele was, in fact, the only person consulted by Mr. Redmer. And Mr. Redmer not only followed Mr. Steele's advice to the letter, he also made sure Monumental's recipients knew who was buttering their bread. "On behalf of Lieutenant Governor Michael S. Steele, it is my pleasure to inform you," Mr. Redmer's letters to the select nonprofits began.

As Sun reporter Jennifer Skalka discovered, board members from these groups were soon after (or shortly before) writing checks totaling $13,711 to Mr. Steele's campaign. A quid pro quo? Mr. Steele's spokeswoman calls the notion "insulting."

Mr. Redmer's decision to consult only Mr. Steele on how best to spend money that rightly belonged to all Monumental's alleged victims was a huge mistake. Mr. Steele's causes may well have been worthy, but state government shouldn't make decisions this way. Other needy groups should have been given an opportunity to apply and have their applications reviewed by an independent panel. But it was just as wrong for Mr. Redmer to spin the awards as coming from Mr. Steele. And now those errors have been compounded by Mr. Steele's failure to acknowledge even the appearance of impropriety.

Clearly, the insurance administration and other state agencies need to adopt uniform procedures to keep such transactions impartial and ethical. And Mr. Steele, a candidate for U.S. Senate, ought to return the board members' donations. The law may not require it, but propriety does. The last thing Congress needs is another politician prone to ethical lapses.

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