Maryland House passes first major ethics bill in over a decade

The Maryland House of Delegates unanimously passed a bill Friday that would update the state's ethics laws. It would require more disclosure of lawmakers' conflicts of interest and put some new limits on legislators' advocacy for private businesses.

The bill would make the first major changes to state ethics rules in more than a decade.

Gov. Larry Hogan sought an even more sweeping rewrite of the rules that would have subjected legislators' conduct to oversight by an executive branch commission. The attorney general's office advised that such a move would probably violate the state constitution by breaching the separation between different branches of government.

Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, said the bill as passed represented a compromise that the Republican governor's office was happy to see moving forward.

"We see this as a definite step forward and a move in the right direction after some very high-profile indictments and public ethical lapses that will help restore the trust the public deserves to have in their institutions of government," he said.

Alexandra Hughes, House Speaker Michael E. Busch's chief of staff, said Busch was pleased that he and the governor could combine ideas to produce "one of the strongest ethics bills in years."

"This legislation will provide greater transparency to the public and tighten conflict of interest laws for greater public confidence in elected officials in the executive and legislative branches," she said.  

Several of the provisions in the bill that passed the House Friday are designed to deal with ethical questions raised about Del. Dan Morhaim, who worked on medical marijuana policies without fully disclosing that he was being paid by a medical marijuana company and would work for it if the company was licensed by the state.

"I broke no laws or rules, have continued to focus on important policy issues, and plan to vote for the legislation to improve and make clearer the ethics rules for those in public service and for the citizens of the state," the Baltimore County Democrat said ahead of the House vote.

The General Assembly's ethics committee found that Morhaim's conduct violated the spirit of the ethics rules, if not the letter. The bill would make clear that such conduct is barred by law.

The measure would require legislators to make more extensive disclosures about their and their spouse's sources of income. It would require records disclosed to the legislative ethics committee and executive branch commission to be posted online for the public to inspect.

The bill would create an independent advisory board that would recommend future changes to ethics laws. That provision became a high priority for the governor.

"Having some citizen oversight into the legislative joint ethics committee is something we pushed very strongly for," Mayer said.

The bill would also put new restrictions on what work former lobbyists hired by the government can do, barring them for a year from being involved in matters relating to former clients.

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