What a regent is - and isn't

March 26, 2006|By C. FRASER SMITH

There is talk in Annapolis these days of assigning an ethics monitor to the volunteers who guide Maryland's university system.

And this was before reports that Regent Richard E. Hug, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s chief fundraiser, has been soliciting campaign contributions from a prominent university benefactor.

Mr. Hug told The Washington Post that he asked John M. Gregory, a former chairman of King Pharmaceuticals, to make political contributions. State records show Mr. Gregory gave $275,000 to the Maryland Republican Party.

Mr. Gregory wants the state to build a new pharmacy school building on the university campus in Baltimore. Perhaps he thought - or was told - that contributions to the governor's re-election campaign might speed the process.

The University System of Maryland has to worry that politics and fundraising will not mix. Mr. Gregory, who has given the School of Pharmacy nearly $6 million in recent years without fanfare, might not appreciate the appearance of a link between campaign contributions and a necessary campus improvement.

Several years ago, when former Gov. Parris N. Glendening was competing for the job of university chancellor, several important contributors threatened to withhold their gifts.

In addition to the ethics adviser, legislators are considering a bill - aimed at Mr. Hug - that would take regents out of the fundraising game.

It's remarkable that an ethics referee would be needed by the regents.

Yet the board has been, historically in Maryland, a place to reward important political players. Most of them have no agenda, political or personal.

Some of the most effective regents have been men of substance with no public profile at all. In recent years, however, regents have been in the news, and not the news they would have chosen.

In recent days, regents and legislators and the State Ethics Commission have been discussing what constitutes lobbying. Regents are barred from lobbying, but two of them are skating close to the line.

David H. Nevins, current chairman of Board of Regents, accompanied one of his patrons, Constellation Energy Group, to meetings attended by state House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. Not lobbying, just "meeting and greeting," says Mr. Nevins.

Annapolis is having a big guffaw over that one. "Meet and greet" is the essence of lobbying. It's right there in the lobbyist handbook, after "wine and dine."

"Meet and greet" is the lobbying threshold, that incandescent moment when the client sees you're worth the big fees he's paying you. You're putting him in front of people whose names include titles such as "speaker" or "president" or "chairman."

The issue grows somewhat more nuanced in the case of Mr. Nevins' colleague on the board, former Gov. Marvin Mandel. Mr. Mandel says he has not been lobbying either, in a matter involving wine sales. He's been lawyering.

Mr. Mandel has registered in the past as a lobbyist on behalf of liquor wholesalers, who this year want to block a bill allowing local wineries to sell directly to restaurants and retailers. That lobbyist registration was made before he was a regent. Regents are barred from lobbying, so Mr. Mandel is now representing these clients as a lawyer.

What, you may ask, is the difference? Well, lobbying is illegal for a regent and lawyering is not.

But let's be fair. Some of Maryland's high-rollers have lobbied occasionally in Annapolis for years without bothering to register. Registration is required for a number of reasons, including the importance of knowing which powerful player wants a bill to live or die.

Bankers, sports team owners, utility company executives and many other businessmen have weighed in on important issues from time to time.

Regents, though, were thought to be above the hurly-burly. Some of the most effective of their number serve their terms and leave with their anonymity intact.

For good or ill, they serve on a board that sets policy for the state's universities. They are, you might say, in charge of tomorrow.

And now they need an ethics guide?

C. Fraser Smith is senior analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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