The perks of power

December 28, 2006

No doubt a lot of people were appalled at the news that Thomas L. Bromwell, the former Baltimore County state senator soon to be tried on federal corruption charges, is getting $400,000 and 18 months of health benefits to voluntarily step down from a plum state job. But let's make sure the public is indignant about the right thing. The problem is not the amount of money involved (a sum determined at the time of his hiring) or his potential guilt (because that's yet to be decided). It's the Annapolis insider mentality that puts a veteran legislator in such a job in the first place and keeps him there as long as possible.

Mr. Bromwell has been chief executive officer of the state's quasi-public Injured Workers' Insurance Fund since 2002, when he stepped down from his post as chairman of the influential Senate Finance Committee. He has reportedly been under criminal investigation (for actions he took as a state senator) since 2003. He was indicted in October 2005 on charges of taking bribes from a company vying for state contracts. The man accused of giving him those bribes, a former president of Poole and Kent Co., pleaded guilty in November. By any acceptable standard of public or private business practice, Mr. Bromwell should have resigned quite some time ago.

Whether the former lawmaker is guilty or not will be up to a federal court to determine next spring. But it's hard to believe he's been effective in his IWIF job since his multicount indictment 14 months ago. It's also curious to note that Mr. Bromwell's predecessor, a veteran insurance industry executive, was replaced with a less generous severance after only about a year on the job.

IWIF provides workers compensation insurance for about one-fourth of Maryland's businesses. That's an important role - holding the cost of insurance premiums to a reasonable level boosts the state's overall business climate. But was Mr. Bromwell, a Democrat and former tavern owner whose knowledge of the insurance industry was based solely on his legislative oversight role, truly the best choice? Members of the IWIF board, who are appointed by the governor (but have little accountability to anyone else), decided he was - until, finally, now.

Democrats made a lot of noise over the last two years about Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s aggressive approach to political patronage. Will Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley do any better? Not if the clubby atmosphere of Annapolis is allowed to continue. Enough is enough. Whether the governor is a Republican or a Democrat, lines need to be drawn. The case of Mr. Bromwell and IWIF makes that crystal clear.

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