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News Opinion Editorial

A conflict of interest

In 2012, the Maryland General Assembly considered legislation reauthorizing the state Real Estate Commission, including a series of amendments related to an obscure function of that agency, a fund that compensates victims of bad actions by licensed real estate professionals. Those who have suffered a loss due to fraud, theft, embezzlement or other offenses by a licensee can get compensation from a state fund, which the offending party must pay back, with interest and fees. The amendments to the bill would have reduced the maximum interest rate, provided for the elimination of fees under some circumstances and allowed for the reinstatement of the offender's a real estate license during the repayment period.

As legislation goes, it was pretty obscure. In fact, it was estimated to effect in a significant way only about seven people in the entire state. The trouble is, one of those seven people was the author of the amendments: Del. Tony McConkey.

The story of Mr. McConkey's advocacy on behalf of this piece of legislation, as outlined in a report by the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, is one of complete disregard for even the most basic standards of good conduct by an elected official. He ignored the advice of the legislature's ethics counsel and misrepresented that advice to his colleagues. At one point, his lobbying effort on behalf of a bill that would have saved him thousands of dollars a year became so heated that a fellow Anne Arundel County Republican, Sen. Edward Reilly, had to call security to have the delegate escorted out of his office. And when he was confronted about the apparent conflict of interest posed by his actions, Mr. McConkey refused to answer repeated requests for a response from the ethics committee. When the committee finally did get him on the phone, he provided an account that did not square with the recollections of anyone else involved. The House of Delegates was more than justified today in voting to reprimand Delegate McConkey for his actions.

In a citizen legislature, like Maryland's, some degree of conflict of interest is inevitable. We do not expect teachers who serve in the General Assembly to recuse themselves from all votes involving education, or for lawyers to hold back from voting on anything to do with the practice of law. On the contrary, we operate under the assumption that having lawmakers who are involved to some extent in the issues they address provides expertise and perspective.

The key is disclosure, and a recognition of times when a law affects not just the general interests of a large group but the very specific interests of the lawmaker himself, and Mr. McConkey failed on both counts. He did disclose on House ethics forms that he is a real estate professional, but he failed to disclose his more personal interest in the matter of the real estate guarantee fund — he owed $75,000, plus administrative fees and interest, stemming from claims of fraud, misrepresentation and other offenses by three clients. Had his amendments become law — they were scuttled after timely reporting on the matter by the Washington Post — they would have saved him thousands of dollars and afforded him the opportunity to restart his career. His interest in the matter was so narrow that no level of disclosure would have made proper his vote on the legislation, much less his sponsorship of and lobbying for amendments to it.

In addition to the reprimand, the ethics committee requested that Mr. McConkey apologize, and he did, after a fashion. He said on the House floor, after the recitation of charges against him, that he "greatly" apologized but that, in his defense, he believed that a written opinion from the legislature's ethics counsel justified his actions. He provided a selective retelling of his efforts on behalf of the legislation to bolster his account. The text of the ethics counsel's opinion leaves no room for such misinterpretation. It clearly indicates that Mr. McConkey at the least needed to exercise greater care in disclosing his potential of conflict and, given the uniqueness of his personal circumstances, should have led him to avoid involvement in the matter altogether.

What is perhaps even more galling than Mr. McConkey's semi-apology is that it was apparently persuasive to a handful of his fellow lawmakers. Republican Dels. Donald Dwyer, Glen Glass and Neil C. Parrott voted against the reprimand. Republican Dels. Rick Impallaria and Warren Miller and Democratic Del. Theodore Sophocleus abstained. Delegate Dwyer, himself in trouble over a drunken boating accident, took to the floor to declare it a "sad day" that so many of his colleagues would go after Mr. McConkey.

It was anything but. Lawmakers need to act in the public's interest, not their own. By reprimanding Mr. McConkey, the House has reaffirmed that principle.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly identified some of the delegates who voted against the reprimand. The Sun regrets the error.

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