Panel OKs bill blocking regent political actions

House measure would restrict fundraising, forbid running for office

General Assemby

March 24, 2006|By JENNIFER SKALKA | JENNIFER SKALKA,SUN REPORTER

Aiming to prevent members of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents from political involvement that could conflict with their higher education duties, a legislative committee yesterday approved legislation to restrict their fundraising activities and forbid them from running for office.

The House Environmental Matters Committee voted 12 to 8 in favor of the bill, a measure that Republicans say is aimed mainly at Richard E. Hug, a regent who has long been the top fundraiser for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The committee vote follows news reports on the potentially questionable lobbying activities of two board members. The full House of Delegates is expected to debate the proposal today, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he believes he has the votes to pass it.

"I just think it's good government, regardless of whose administration is here," Busch said. "Members of the Board of Regents should have their focus on the university system."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said that he has not seen the House bill but would favor an effort to keep regents largely out of the political sphere.

A spokesman for Ehrlich declined to comment.

The 17-member regents board is responsible for governance of the 13-campus university system. Regents are appointed to five-year terms by the governor and must be approved by the state Senate. The position is one of the most desirable assignments made by a governor.

But the connections and outside activities of some board members have raised concerns among lawmakers.

Hug is expected to help Ehrlich raise more than $20 million for the governor's re-election, and two years ago he drew criticism when he founded a committee that was collecting money to promote the governor's slots plan.

David H. Nevins, the board's chairman, and former Gov. Marvin Mandel have taken heat in recent weeks for engaging in apparent lobbying in Annapolis despite a prohibition against such activities.

Mandel has been working with liquor wholesalers to stop legislation that would allow small wineries to sell directly to restaurants and retailers. He has not registered as a lobbyist but has testified in the Senate against the bill.

Nevins has been the liaison between his bosses at Constellation Energy and top lawmakers.

Hug, who helped Ehrlich raise a record $10.5 million for his 2002 campaign, said he's not sure whether he would give up his fundraising activities for the governor or resign from his board seat if the bill becomes law. "I hold very deeply the University System of Maryland," Hug said. "I think I've made a major contribution there as far as time and effort. I think any of the staff would verify that. It's a shame. I just have to reserve judgment and see how it all plays out."

Del. Frank S. Turner, a Howard County Democrat who sponsored the proposal approved in committee yesterday, said that he is hearing complaints about the "integrity and credibility of the board."

"There's plenty of stuff to do if you're on the board," he said. "Each university has a foundation, and they all need money."

Turner's bill would allow members of the Board of Regents to personally donate to a candidate or political party. It would prohibit a regent from fundraising for candidates, acting as a candidate's treasurer or serving on a fundraising or political committee. A member would also be forbidden from running for office.

The latter restriction would affect James C. Rosapepe, a former ambassador to Romania who is running for the state Senate seat held by Democrat John A. Giannetti Jr. of Prince George's County.

Rosapepe could not be reached for comment.jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

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