With disclosure, I do thee wed Marriage: The state's ethics rules for legislators and lobbyists are pretty straightforward about limited gift giving. But what if they want to get married? Should the ring be declared a bribe?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Michael W. Burns and Kimberly A. McCoy are consulting authorities higher than Emily Post regarding the do's and don'ts for their pending nuptials.

He's a Maryland legislator. She's a lobbyist. And the rules of engagement are a little outside the norm.

In fact, many of them will have to be decided by the State Ethics Commission before the wedding Nov. 23.

The Burns-McCoy union-to-be has found itself in somewhat uncharted territory governed by the state's complicated ethics law -- which, among other things, generally prohibits legislators from receiving gifts worth more than $15 from lobbyists.

Gifts that might include, say, a wedding ring.

"It's like deciphering Etruscan to figure out what to do," said Burns, a Republican delegate from Anne Arundel County.

Consider this: Burns can give McCoy an engagement ring without a legal problem. (What legislator tries to buy influence from a lobbyist?)

It's unclear, however, whether he can accept a wedding band from McCoy -- at least not before the moment they are legally pronounced husband and wife, which ordinarily follows the marriage ceremony's exchange of rings.

Before that point in the ceremony, it might be considered a prohibited gift; after that, a spousal exception would kick in.

Burns and McCoy are grappling with legislation that was designed to guard against improper influence of public officials.

In short, the law basically prohibits legislators from accepting gifts from lobbyists valued at $15 or more.

It does, however, allow lawmakers to be treated by lobbyists to meals or drinks worth more than $15, provided they are disclosed. A provision also allows gifts of "a personal and private nature" -- but only if the ethics commission rules them to be as such.

All that has ramifications not just for the happy couple, but for their wedding party and guests.

McCoy's father -- Burns' future father-in-law -- is also a lobbyist, Dennis C. McCoy. And many of those expected to attending the wedding reception also are lobbyists or legislators -- all of whom are subject to the same prohibitions and disclosure requirements as Burns and McCoy.

If a lobbyist-guest gives the couple a gift valued at more than $15, Burns as a legislator can accept it only if the ethics commission rules it to be personal and private. And the guest would have to file a report with the state disclosing it as a personal gift given a legislator and/or his spouse.

Now if Mr. McCoy pays for the reception, as the father of the bride often does, Burns and other legislator-guests will have to disclose the estimated $50 cost of the meal. If Ms. McCoy pays, the same holds true. And the guests will have to file reports as well.

Since in certain situations, lobbyists' families are also covered by the law, the potential for paperwork being generated on Christmas morning at the Burns-McCoys is enormous.

"After we're married, I don't think I can even get a birthday present from my mom and dad," McCoy said.

Ultimately, that's why McCoy wrote to the State Ethics Commission, seeking advice.

"The humor is tempered by the risk of violating the law," she said. "Certainly I want to protect my spouse's political future and at the same time maintain my own integrity as a lobbyist."

John E. O'Donnell, the commission's executive director, would not discuss McCoy's request, citing confidentiality rules. He did say that a hypothetical situation involving a legislator and lobbyist getting married would pose new ethical questions.

"There are no established opinions, but a lot of established statutes that would have to be applied," O'Donnell said. "Obviously these answers are not simple."

McCoy and Burns aren't the only ones with questions.

Next Saturday, Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Howard County Democrat, is to marry Pamela S. Metz, a lobbyist who represents several interests, including the insurance, tobacco and petroleum industries.

Metz sent a letter to the ethics commission similar to McCoy's missive just yesterday.

"We're going through this as if everything has to be reported, as if we aren't getting married," Kasemeyer said. "Until we hear if this is an exception, we'll just report [all gifts] as if we're just a normal lobbyist and legislator."

The question of whether Kasemeyer's wedding band would constitute "a gift" from his fiancee apparently will be moot. "I'm just going to pay for it," he said.

Questions about the applicability of the ethics laws to engaged or married couples are not the only ones being raised.

Earlier this year, lobbyist Joel D. Rozner reported spending nearly $2,000 on Del. Cheryl C. Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat he dated nearly a year.

Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat who co-chairs the General Assembly's joint ethics committee, has suggested legislation in this area.

Collins said he would like to exempt the reporting of personal gifts between a legislator and lobbyist if "a personal relationship of a romantic nature" is disclosed in writing to both the ethics commission and the ethics committee.

McCoy agrees that something needs to be done, at least for married couples. "We feel that the law is regulating a relationship, and maybe the legislature needs to make a change somewhere."

But Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, expressed concern that the extreme example of the Burns-McCoy wedding would be used as "an attempt to make the whole [ethics law] look ridiculous" and chip away at the statutes.

"This is an issue of balancing privacy against the public interest," said Povich, who has lobbied for tightening the state's gift prohibitions and disclosure requirements.

"We will be interested in seeing the opinion by the State Ethics Commission on prenuptial gifts from lobbyists to legislators before deciding whether any changes in Maryland's laws are needed."

Pub Date: 10/12/96

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