Ethics panel reaches consensus on some reforms

January 20, 2012|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

The special committee named by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to consider possible improvements in the state's ethics laws reached a quick consensus on two measures long sought by advocates of disclosure -- signaling that it could bring in a strong recommendation to enact those measures this year.

The ethics panel, chaired by Sen. Jamie Raskin, had little difficulty reaching bipartisan agreement that lawmakers' disclosure forms should be made available online and that a provision that now requires the State Ethics Commission to notify the filer of a disclosure about the identity of people who look at it should be eliminated. While no formal vote was taken, senators on the panel agreed without dissent that  those changes should be made as soon as possible.

Both are measures that have long been advocated by Common Cause, the government watchdog organzation. Susan Wichmann, executive director of the group, said the failure to provide the information on line forces individuals who might want to check a disclosure form to travel to the commission's Annapolis office during business hours at their time and expense.

Once there, they are required to produce a photo identification and fill out a form disclosing their names and addresses so that lawmakers and other officials can be notified who is looking at their disclosures. Wichmann said that provision has a "chilling effect" on inquiries, adding that some people have received calls from lawmakers demanding to know why their forms are being inspected.

The current requirement is one reason the Center for Public Integrity gives Maryland a "D" in its report card on state disclosure requirements, the panel was told.

Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat. said it is possible the committee will recommend a two-stage process under which lawmakers and possibly other elected officials' disclosures are put on line first and the many state officials who must also file disclosures go later.

Next week the committee is expected to discuss the more touchy issue of what sanctions to apply to lawmakers and officials who fail to make required disclosures. Incomplete disclosures became an issue at the federal trial last year of Sen. Ulysses S. Currie, who won acquittal. His lawyers admitted the Prince Georges County Democrat failed to live up to the General Assembly's disclosure rules by failing to reveal payments from a grocery chain but said that was a measure for the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics to handle. That panel, which is separate from Raskin's, is currently considering the Currie case.

Currently, the joint committee can recommend penalties from reprimand to censure to expulsion, but has no power to levy fines on members. The commission can impose fines, but lawmakers are expected to consider whether the sanctions are adequate.

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