Scaled-back ethics measure to offer some online records

Starting next year, Marylanders will no longer have to travel to Annapolis to look into lawmakers' possible conflicts of interest.

Under a measure passed this week, General Assembly members' ethics forms will be posted online, and so will newly required records disclosing their own and their spouses' outside employment.

Though open-government advocates called the bill a good step forward, it fell short of expectations set when it was introduced in the aftermath of state Sen. Ulysses Currie's public corruption trial. Last-minute changes limited the amount of information that will be published online, and excluded executive-branch officials and local governments from the requirements.

"From what we found, any movement the [Maryland] legislature can make in putting disclosures online is a positive move," said Randy Barrett, a spokesman for the Center for Public Integrity, which last month gave the state grades of "F" for public access to information, along with legislative and executive accountability. "But if there are exceptions, that's not good for transparency or the public interest."

Legislators' comprehensive annual financial disclosures will not be posted online, as proposed in the original bill sponsored by state Sen. Jamie Raskin. This summer, a panel appointed by legislative leaders will explore the possibility of publishing those forms, which contain more information than the conflict-of-interest records.

Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the bill still "brings us into the 21st century."

"The bill that emerged from the General Assembly retained the bull's-eye core of everything that I was aiming at," he said Friday. "So I was delighted that the heart of the legislation was retained."

Under existing law, lawmakers must file conflict-of-interest forms with the joint legislative ethics committee when they represent a party before a state or local agency, have a financial interest in a business regulated by the state, and in several other situations. They would be posted online under the bill, which a spokeswoman said Gov. Martin O'Malley is likely to sign.

The annual financial disclosure forms include more information, including stock and business holdings. Those would not be posted online, a change that was among several that came just before the legislative session ended.

The House Environmental Matters Committee stripped several provisions from the bill, including requirements that would have made county officials follow suit. Committee Chairwoman Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore City Democrat, couldn't be reached for comment Friday.

Many lawmakers had concerns that posting the financial reports online would put them at risk for identity theft, Raskin said.

The new measure also will create an "online registration program" for people who want to review ethics forms. It's still not clear how that system will work, said Susan Wichmann, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Maryland.

State lawmakers still will be able to request to know whether anyone has reviewed their forms, as they can under current law, said Patrick Tracy, a staffer for the House Environmental Matters Committee.

Common Cause believes that the notification requirement has "a chilling effect," Wichmann said.

"We obviously would have preferred that the notification requirement not be in the legislation, and we hope to work with the work group … so that they can be comfortable with the fact that the information should be freely available to the public," she said, adding that Maryland is one of five states with such a requirement.

Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat, was censured by the Senate in February for failing to disclose that he was paid to represent Shoppers Food Warehouse before state agencies. Currie had been acquitted in 2011 on federal corruption charges.

Because the General Assembly is a part-time legislature, lawmakers must be careful not to allow their outside work to exert undue influence on their decisions in Annapolis, Raskin said.

"Having the disclosure forms online is important not just for the access it gives our constituents and the media, it's also important in that it will make everyone really reflect on the decisions that they're making," Raskin said. "By putting things online, we force ourselves to look at things from the perspective of the general public and not from the perspective of people who are in Annapolis. What looks normal from the inside might raise eyebrows on the outside."

Christopher Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, called the bill "a very good first step."

The conservative, free-market think tank has long criticized legislators who seek bond legislation to help nonprofit organizations with which they or their family members are involved. Posting employment disclosures online will help people better examine those types of issues, he said.

Summers called concerns about identity theft an excuse, saying the financial disclosure forms don't contain information such as Social Security numbers.

"For them to hide behind that," Summers said, "that's a red herring."



State ethics bill

What passed: Under the bill, state lawmakers will be required to file forms disclosing their own and their spouse's outside employment, and their forms will be posted online starting next year. Their conflict-of-interest statements will also be posted.

What didn't: The original bill would have required annual financial disclosure statements to be posted online, and would have applied to executive-branch and local government officials

Recommended on Baltimore Sun