House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. called on the legislature's ethics committee yesterday to examine a transaction in which two prominent Annapolis lobbyists steered a lucrative real estate commission to a Baltimore delegate.
Taylor and other legislative leaders said the transaction, in which Del. Tony E. Fulton represented lobbying partners Gerard E. Evans and John R. Stierhoff in their purchase of an Annapolis office building, posed troubling questions.
Fulton received a commission of approximately $9,000 in the deal, which was reported yesterday in The Sun.
"If what the story leads people to conclude is accurate, and that's a big if, I think it raises serious storm warnings," Taylor said. "I am more than fully prepared to deal with what those storm warnings lead to."
Publicly, many legislators were guarded in their comments about the disclosure of Fulton's involvement with the lobbyists. Privately, several sharply questioned his judgment. And the head of a government watchdog group said Fulton should be fined and censured.
Fulton, a West Baltimore Democrat, has defended his role in the transaction. But yesterday he, too, called for a review by the ethics committee.
"I have requested that the ethics committee review these transactions so that it would be clear to everyone, as it is clear to me, that my activities were completely within the law and completely ethical," he said in a written statement. He declined to be interviewed.
Del. Kenneth C. Montague, co-chairman of the ethics committee, said the panel would examine the propriety of Fulton's role, and said it was possible the committee would direct Fulton to excuse himself from votes on legislation pushed by the two lobbyists.
Last year, the ethics committee directed former Sen. Edward Middlebrooks not to vote on legislation sought by Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos because Middlebrooks, a lawyer, had received referrals from Angelos' law firm.
Montague, a Baltimore Democrat, stressed that he did not know all the facts of the Fulton case and declined to comment on the propriety of Fulton's actions.
He said no date has been set for when the ethics committee would take up the matter.
The committee can tell lawmakers how to handle ethical questions and can recommend punishments to the full House of Delegates or Senate.
Evans and Stierhoff joined a third investor to purchase the Annapolis office building for $600,000 last Nov. 30. As the agent for the buyers, Fulton and his firm, Long & Foster Inc., shared a 3 percent commission in the deal.
Fulton is a real estate agent based in Lutherville who does not typically handle commercial properties in Annapolis.
One person who was not hesitant to criticize the transaction was Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, the government watchdog group.
"They should make a finding that there's an unacceptable appearance of conflict and [Fulton] should be fined and reprimanded," Skullney said.
She added that Evans and Stierhoff should be fined and suspended from lobbying for their role in the deal. However, there is no mechanism in state law for such a punishment to be handed out to lobbyists.
Under Maryland law, a legislator who has a "close economic association" with a lobbyist has a presumed conflict of interest. The legislator, however, can file a document disclosing the conflict and asserting his objectivity.
Maryland lawmakers are expected to approve a revision to the state's ethics law this year, prompted by cases last year in which one lawmaker was expelled and another resigned for ethical violations.
Nothing in the proposed revision would have prevented Fulton's involvement in the deal.
U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, chairman of the task force that drafted the proposal, said it would be hard to write laws to deal with any possible relationship between a legislator and a lobbyist.
Instead, Cardin said, the legislature's ethics committee already has the authority to deal with the issues raised by Fulton's real estate deal.
"You can't conceive of every possible kind of relationship," Cardin said. "This is the type of thing that may well be clarified by the ruling of the ethics committee."
Pub Date: 1/14/99