With an election less than a year away, many Democratic legislators are beginning to worry that fallout from the General Assembly's ethics investigation of state Sen. Larry Young will damage their political fortunes.
The state Senate may be forced to vote on disciplining Young for possible ethics violations in coming weeks, and lawmakers know that they, too, will be under scrutiny -- from their constituents -- as the matter unfolds.
"We are on trial, and the focus is on how we deal with the issue," said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel Democrat. "It absolutely could be a campaign issue. You can't kid yourself."
In a report this month, The Sun outlined how Young has used his legislative position to benefit three private companies he has created. His LY Group, for example, has been receiving thousands of dollars in fees from Merit Behavioral Care Corp., a mental health firm that does business with the state. Young failed to report the fees to the ethics committee.
Similarly, he did not report receiving $33,500 he collected from Coppin State College under a no-bid consulting contract that paid him as much as $300 per hour. The contract was canceled recently by state education officials.
Young also has used his taxpayer-funded district office to run his private companies, The Sun reported.
Prompted by the article, the Assembly's 12-member ethics committee is investigating Young's business activities in a case some members say is potentially the most serious the panel has handled since it was created in 1972. The committee hopes to present its findings by Jan. 14, the beginning of the legislature's annual 90-day session.
At the same time, the state prosecutor has begun an inquiry to see if Young may have broken any criminal statutes, a probe expected to begin in earnest once the ethics committee concludes its work.
Young has denied any wrongdoing and has said he welcomes the ethics investigation.
Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat who serves on the ethics committee, said many of his constituents seem to have come to a conclusion about Young already, based on media accounts.
Wherever he goes, from Democratic club meetings to Eagle Scout ceremonies, Collins said, he hears the same message -- take care of the Young situation.
"Everybody says, 'Do something,' " recounted Collins, who represents the Essex area and a slice of Harford County. "They don't know what, but they want us to do something."
The Young case, according to several lawmakers, will rub off on all legislators as it stokes the cynicism with which many voters already view their elected officials.
"There's always the 'throw the rascals out' philosophy," said Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat. "This throws a little firewood on that. If what is printed is true, it reflects on the entire Senate."
Baker said several people in his district have pressed him on the Young matter.
"They're sort of wondering how a state senator can do these sorts of things and get away with it," said Baker. "I don't have an answer."
Besides Young, the lawmaker with the most at stake is Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who counts Young as a strong ally in the 47-member Senate and who appointed him to two key legislative posts.
Miller tried last week to get control of the situation by instructing Young to stop doing business with health care companies or lose his coveted chairmanship of the Senate Finance Health Subcommittee.
Young readily agreed not to work for health care companies.
Despite Miller's action, the consensus among lawmakers in Annapolis remains that the Senate president will be under strong pressure next month to remove Young as subcommittee chairman -- and from the Finance Committee altogether -- if the ethics committee substantiates the newspaper's findings.
"The thing [Miller] really ought to do is remove him from the committee," said one ranking legislator who, like some others interviewed for this article, asked not to be identified. "That protects the committee and the legislature. He has got to act."
Young is also head of the Executive Nominations Committee, which votes to approve or reject hundreds of gubernatorial patronage appointments. His position there may be in jeopardy as well, some lawmakers said.
Miller said several legislators have urged him privately to be prepared to take strong action when the ethics committee report on Young is submitted.
For now, Miller is reminding people that Young must be given a fair chance to explain his activities.
"The ethics committee is our forum for resolving matters such as this," said Miller, a Prince George's Democrat. "Let's see if it works."
Miller has instructed the ethics committee to finish its investigation by Jan. 14, the beginning of the Assembly's session, in an attempt to avoid having Young's problems overshadow the Assembly's work.
Even if the committee meets its deadline, the panel may include a recommendation that the Senate appoint an investigative committee with subpoena powers to delve further into Young's businesses, a process that could drag on for months.
Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., chairman of the ethics committee, said the committee and its staff are working diligently. Its two-hour, closed-door meeting on the subject last week, he said, was all business.
"I think the public wants something done about it, but I'm sure they want a fair process," said Montague, a Baltimore Democrat.
Citing exemptions spelled out in the state's open-meetings law for disciplinary matters, the ethics panel met privately last week and is expected to continue to do so, although Young may choose to have a Jan. 6 hearing on his case open to the public.
Similarly, an investigative committee, if one were established, would likely have the authority to meet in private, said Robert A. Zarnoch, an assistant attorney general.
Meanwhile, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a fellow Democrat who includes Young on the list of his most loyal legislative supporters, will also be trying to avoid any reflected heat.
"To the extent that the bulk of the findings are correct, it suggests a pattern that is simply not acceptable under Maryland law," Glendening said in an interview. "It's a serious matter for the trust and confidence the public has in the governing process."
But the governor played down the effect Young's troubles could have on his own re-election bid.
"We'll do well, no matter what," Glendening said. "I'm not as concerned about '98 as making sure as we can that people have confidence in the legislative process as we go into the legislative session."
As for Young himself, the 23-year veteran of the Assembly seems to have kept up his official duties. Last week, he led a short session of the health subcommittee as it discussed matters that will be coming before the Assembly next year.
And some of his colleagues are strongly defending Young.
"I think there will be a finding before the session starts," said Del. Clarence M. Mitchell IV who, like Young, represents the 44th legislative district that includes downtown and part of West Baltimore. "Look at the nature of the charges. It's very black and white -- either something happened or it didn't. If it did, where's the receipt?
"I'm standing with my senator," added Mitchell. "If that's his story, I'm sticking with him on the story."
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Pub Date: 12/14/97