Lapses in ethics are littering Maryland's state capital. Be it in the executive, legislative or judicial branch, public officials are sending signals that favoritism, self-aggrandizement and conflicts of interest will be condoned, given the right circumstances.
Take the judiciary. A powerful lawyer-lobbyist, with friends on the Court of Appeals, gets a big break from that court -- a rare break for someone already convicted of a crime. One judge, with connections to the lawyer-lobbyist, sits on the panel and votes to let the lawyer keep his license pending appeal of his conviction.
Later, the judge defends his decision not to remove himself from this sticky situation. He blames the other judges for their failure to remove him from the case, never mentioning his own 'f responsibility. He denies he's a bosom buddy of the lawyer-lobbyist, though he owes his judicial career and an earlier powerful job in the governor's office to the lawyer's lobbying partner.
Perhaps the judge is correct. Perhaps everything was handled properly and the lawyer-lobbyist received no special treatment. But the perception is something else. To the average Maryland citizen, it looks as though the "old boy" network came through again.
On the same day the convicted lawyer-lobbyist was permitted to keep his law license, the Court of Appeals rendered another judgment: It upheld a lower-court ruling blocking a purge of 32,000 names from the city's voter list. It seemed a cut-and-dried decision: As of January 1, it became a violation of state and federal laws to conduct such a purge.
But Republican die-hard supporters of Ellen R. Sauerbrey continue to see a conspiracy. They assert that since Democrats select the state's judges, the fix is in. And when you look at the way the Court of Appeals handled the non-suspension of the convicted lawyer-lobbyist, you begin to understand why the Sauerbrey backers lack confidence in the judiciary's integrity.
Public faith in the executive branch has been strained, too. Those generous pension benefits Parris Glendening arranged -- wittingly or unwittingly -- for himself and top staffers upon leaving Prince George's County government still rankle as an egregious example of ethics gone awry. More recently, there have been two other instances of the administration's tone-deafness.
The governor's nominee for secretary of higher education refuses to relinquish her tenure at the University of Baltimore. The fact that she has a vested interest in boosting the fortunes of her once and future employer doesn't strike the secretary or the governor as out of line. The governor himself gave up his tenure at College Park because of such a conflict. Why is the secretary of higher education different?
Apparently she is. She has made no inquiry of the state ethics commission. The secretary may be totally impartial in her decisions, but again the public perception is one of self-interest and favoritism.
Then there's the deputy general-services secretary serving as a trustee for a legal-defense fund seeking to raise $100,000 on zTC behalf of the governor's ex-campaign treasurer, who is fending off allegations of laundering election money. The deputy Cabinet official sees nothing wrong in this.
He doesn't notice that this appears to put the administration's stamp of approval on his work. Or that businessmen seeking state contracts may feel pressured to give to this legal-defense fund if they want to stay on the right side of an official whose department handles most state procurement contracts.
Even worse, the governor's denial of wrongdoing smacks of blame-shifting. First he claimed he had never met his own deputy general-services secretary. If that's true, it's a curious way to run a government.
Then the defense was that the deputy was volunteering as a trustee on his own time. Fair enough, except that when a deputy Cabinet official gets involved in a highly tinged political-legal matter it impacts directly on his ultimate boss, the governor. The administration was more concerned with the legality of the official's action than with the propriety. It sends the wrong
Maryland's third branch of government, the General Assembly, isn't free of ethical lapses, either. How many lawmakers are sidling up to lobbyists in cozy relationships that reek of favoritism and self-interest? How many lawmakers are squeezing money from lobbyists to fuel their election campaigns? The public perception isn't favorable.
Voters expect high ethical behavior from their elected and appointed leaders. The operative phrase is that they must be "as pure as Caesar's wife." In other words, above even the hint of suspicion.
Can leaders in Annapolis live up to that standard? Failure to do so is why Marylanders are so cynical about the state of politics and government these days.
Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.