Instead of running for Congress, maybe Garagiola should go back to school

Senator Garagiola's failure to report outside income blamed on confusion over language

February 28, 2012|Marta H. Mossburg

Comptroller Peter Franchot wants Maryland schools to teach financial literacy.

Maybe they should start with regular literacy, as even those at the top echelons of government in this state do not understand basic grammar. The former head of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, Prince George's County's Ulysses Currie, successfully relied on an "I am dumb" legal defense to explain in federal court why he didn't follow simple ethics rules about reporting outside income.

The latest politician to fall prey to grammar is Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola, a lawyer who is running for the Democratic nomination for the 6th District congressional race.

The unanimous vote to censure Mr. Currie had barely been completed when news broke, via John Delaney, a rival 6th District Democratic candidate, that Mr. Garagiola failed to report outside income on state ethics forms. Mr. Garagiola blames the repeat omissions (from 2001-2003 and 2003-2006) on the meaning of "and." Here's the language of the financial disclosure form that stumped the former lobbyist: "[list] the name and address of any places of employment and of business entities wholly or partially owned by you ..." The way he read it, the regulation required a legislator to report outside income only if he or she owned a business and was a paid employee of the business — not one or the other.

Maybe we expect too much from our politicians. After all, President Bill Clinton, a Yale Law School graduate, could not define the meaning of "is." The grammar gaffes attributed to Harvard Business School graduate President George W. Bush (aka "the decider") could fill a book. And New York Rep. Charles Rangel — Congress' former top tax writer — blamed his failure to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets and rental income on his taxes on confusing Internal Revenue Service regulations.

But if even they cannot understand government-issued instructions, how can they expect the rest of us, only a minority of whom hold a college degree, to understand IRS rules, the 4,500 criminal statutes in federal law or even the meaning of the "balanced approach" Gov.Martin O'Malleykeeps talking about in his speeches? When auditors come knocking, can we declare our mistakes "just smear," as Senator Garagiola did of accusations from the Delaney camp — or will we be held accountable to the full extent of the law?

Besides, if "and" is so difficult, how does Mr. Garagiola represent his clients and constituents effectively, much less expect to write federal legislation? Obamacare regulations run thousands of pages, for example. And how did he graduate from college, much less from law school, without learning to ask for help when needed? Couldn't he have at least run the questions by his wife, a teacher?

The fact that he still does not note his affiliation with lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig on his official biography, and left it off his campaign biography until The Washington Post wrote about it, speaks to this being more than a grammar problem, however. So does the fact that he voted to censure Senator Currie for not disclosing $250,000 of income from Shoppers Food Warehouse on his financial disclosure forms.

Unless he suffers from cognitive dissonance, there is no way he could think that Mr. Currie did something wrong, while his negligence was OK. Even if he didn't vote on legislation pertaining to Greenberg Traurig, his failure to note the affiliation shows poor judgment and blatant disrespect for transparency — two traits that undoubtedly contribute to Congress' astonishingly low approval ratings.

Worse, only the naïve can think this story is about one person. If not for Senator Garagiola's running for Congress, this information would likely have remained hidden, which raises the question of how many more legislators have made "mistakes" on their disclosure forms and may have conflicts of interest between their private and public roles. The fact that Senator Currie was only censured by his colleagues hints at the answer.

Proposed legislation to make legislators' ethics forms available online would help to keep them more accountable. But legislators still must be truthful when filling out the forms in the first place.

Sadly, the only takeaway for taxpayers from this latest legislative immorality tale is that the names in the corruption headlines may change, but not the culture in Annapolis. If only reforming it were as simple as fixing bad grammar.

Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her email is martamossburg@gmail.com.

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