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Getting serious about ethics

Laws and LegislationEthicsUlysses CurrieFinance

When the Maryland Senate came into session this morning, Sen. Ulysses Currie was seated in the front row — but a crucial 10 feet to the right of his former perch, the desk he was for years afforded as chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. Even as senators and delegates shook hands, hugged and greeted each other after an absence of nine months, Senator Currie served as a highly visible, awkward reminder of what could prove to be one of the most difficult pieces of business the legislature will have to take up this year.

Amid expected debates over gay marriage, taxes, septic systems and more, a committee this week will begin considering what sanctions, if any, to impose on Senator Currie for the ethical lapses that led to his indictment a year ago. A federal jury found that his conduct — acting as a paid advocate for a grocery store chain in its dealings with the state but not disclosing that fact to anyone — was not criminal. But the question of whether his actions are befitting of a member of the General Assembly remains unanswered.

It is in that context that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller announced the formation last week of a committee to study the state's ethics laws and recommend any changes needed to strengthen them.

Senator Miller says he hopes the committee can act quickly enough to introduce legislation to be acted on this year. The effort was not made in concert with the House of Delegates — which has its own problem to deal with in the person of Del. Tiffany Alston, who has been indicted on charges that she misappropriated state funds for personal use — but House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he is open to considering any proposals the group makes.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, who is chairman of the new committee, is a vocal advocate of requiring that elected officials' financial disclosure statements be posted online. That will almost certainly be one of the committee's recommendations — and one Senator Miller said he would support. However, it would have had little bearing in the Currie case; since the senator failed to list his employment with Shoppers Food Warehouse, which paid him about a quarter-million dollars over five years, it wouldn't have mattered whether the form was online or buried in a file cabinet in Annapolis, as they are now. Senator Raskin said he intends to seek a comprehensive review of the state's ethics laws in an effort to make them the strongest in the nation. Right now, according to the Center for Public Integrity, they are far from it. Washington state, which has the strongest standards, got an A in the organization's report card; Maryland got a D.

"There are a lot of ways to make money in America, but going into public office shouldn't be one of them," Senator Raskin said. "We want to keep people's minds focused on the common good."

In addition to putting the forms online, the legislature should take a look at the initial ethics reform proposal Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz made last fall. Before it was gutted by the County Council, it included significantly stronger and more specific restrictions on gifts and conflicts of interest than exist now in state law.

The cynical explanation for this sudden interest in ethics is that Senator Miller is throwing up a smoke screen to distract attention if, as many expect, Senator Currie is allowed to remain in the legislature with nothing more than a reprimand or censure. But all legislators, even those who think they are untainted by the stain that surrounds Senator Currie, need to take this effort seriously. They will likely be in a position during the next three months to decide whether to ask Marylanders to pay more for the services they receive, and taxpayers are going to be much less willing to accept that if they have any doubt that legislators are trustworthy stewards of the common good.

Expelling Senator Currie would send the strongest possible signal that our elected officials will not abide those who put their personal interest above the public interest. But regardless of what happens in his case, the legislature needs to take the opportunity to tighten the state's ethics laws. It may not get the same level of attention as gay marriage or the gas tax, but it is just as important.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misstated the organization that provided a report card of state ethics laws. It was the Center for Public Integrity. The Sun regrets the error.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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