Maryland politicians' crime spree

From political crime to legalized corruption, the state of ethics in the Free State is a sorry one

May 24, 2012|By Douglas M. Schmidt

For the past three years, Maryland has experienced an unprecedented crime wave of political corruption. The only comparable period in memory would be the 1970s, when a governor was jailed and a sitting U.S. vice president (who had served as governor and Baltimore County executive) resigned in shame. The current offenders have been high-ranking elected officials, and the offenses have been far more serious than simple lapses in judgment. They have involved a level of hubris and ethical depravity that are shocking by any standard.

The sequence of scandals is subtly and slowly undermining trust in government as well as putting a sordid label on modern Maryland politics. The scandals also raise the question about how much corruption is below the surface and how deeply established it is in Maryland government. If the people at the top are cheating, what passes for acceptable practices among the rank and file? The scandals come at a particularly inopportune time for Maryland politicians, forming a backdrop of hostile public reaction to Annapolis tax increases and the push by leaders for more state-sponsored gambling.

The first to fall was former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, caught cavorting with a developer and then palming gift cards meant for needy children. During this period, Ulysses Currie, an influential state senator who chaired one of the most powerful committees in the Maryland legislature escaped a federal conviction for corruption but was stripped of his legislative power for peddling his influence. Then we have not one but two county executives jailed or under indictment. One, John Leopold of Anne Arundel County, who arranged his trysts in a mall parking lot, is being hauled up not for moral turpitude but for misuse of his police protection unit. The other, Jack Johnson ofPrince George's County, who is currently serving time, apparently had a second, undisclosed and high-paying job working for developers. His county councilwoman wife flushed a six-figure bribery check down the toilet and shoved ill-gotten cash into her underwear as federal agents came to the door. (Daryl D. Jones, the lowly county councilman from Anne Arundel who simply ignored paying taxes for four years and is now in jail, looks like a piker by comparison.)

One of Baltimore's most principled business leaders in recent times had a saying that he used to keep his troops in line: "Don't let me see you with chalk on your shoes." This CEO ran a stock brokerage, and as we know, the finance industry is prone to abuse and cheating. He had to be zealous in protecting his firm's good name. "Chalk on the shoes" meant "do not even get close to the out-of-bounds line." Stay well within the playing field, where it is clear to everyone that you can be trusted and where you can never be accused of violating the rules.

The question about Maryland politics is not how many politicians are technically guilty of headline-grabbing crimes but how many Maryland politicians have chalk on their shoes. Where does the corruption, nepotism and cheating at the edges begin and end?

There is a moral and ethical leadership vacuum in Maryland, starting at the highest levels. In 2002, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Millerbegan the modern era of slots gambling by taking from the president of the Maryland Jockey Club a $225,000 "contribution" for a special election fund used to support selected candidates. Although investigated by the FBI and the state, Mr. Miller was technically correct in how he structured his fund to skirt state contribution limits — yet he had chalk all over his shoes. On the Senate president's watch, gambling interests have become the largest lobby in Annapolis, crowding out the voices of more-productive industries.

In 2006, Gov. Martin O'Malleyspent heavily and went into debt to defeat a Republican incumbent. In the months following the new governor's win, Maryland businessman and developer William Rickman coordinated contributions from his numerous business holdings to help the governor retire campaign debt. Less than three years later, after the governor had robocalled Marylanders urging them to vote for the slots referendum, Mr. Rickman received the first slots license granted in Maryland. Some people are just born lucky. In the election cycle of 2010, Mr. Rickman's network, utilizing more than 15 separate names, again combined to become the governor's largest single contributor. After Mr. O'Malley became head of the Democratic Governors Association, Mr. Rickman gave the group $25,000. Though technically legal, the taking of these hundreds of thousands of dollars and then promoting legislation to benefit the contributor is an obvious conflict of interest. The governor has chalk on his shoes.

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