Ethical shortcomings

December 14, 2006

This is the unfortunate reality of ethics in state government: Maryland law aims high but the follow-through is not so hot. That's because while this state might lead the nation in the percentage of government workers required to file financial disclosures, Maryland has relatively few people to review those reports. The result is a well-intentioned, if ineffective, paper shuffle.

That much is made clear in the recent legislative audit of the Maryland Ethics Commission. The independent agency has a huge job - identifying the nearly 12,000 people who ought to be filing reports, making sure those reports are made and checking them for accuracy. But that's not all. The commission is also responsible for tracking the hundreds of lobbyists who deal with state government, educating 85,000 state workers on ethics and, in relatively rare instances, acting on ethics complaints.

And how many people to get all this done? Nine. The smallest state agencies generally hire more people to empty trash cans. The commission's audit required the services of seven. Small wonder that commission staff agreed with most of the audit's findings. They'd like to do a better job, too, but governors and legislatures have never given the commission the resources to do so.

But that's just part of the problem. The audit also raises questions about who should be required to file what information and what role agencies should have in policing their own staff. That will require a broader review of the law by the General Assembly. But adding the recommended three employees to the commission's payroll (as well as money to beef up electronic filing programs and related technology) would be a reasonable first step toward solving the problem.

It's certainly not too much to expect state government to avoid conflicts of interest. An employee who owns a poultry farm probably shouldn't be in charge of chicken inspections. But if potential violations are never identified, then disclosure reports are merely a fa?ade - and a waste of time. After all, ethical behavior and the outward appearance of ethical behavior are not the same thing.

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