Ethics panel to discuss Fulton; Committee will look at Baltimore delegate's business dealings; Could lead to investigation


The legislature's ethics committee is expected to take up a Baltimore delegate's business dealings at a meeting next week that could lead to a formal ethics investigation.

The committee will be reviewing a sworn statement that Del. Tony E. Fulton, a Democrat, filed about his real estate dealings with two prominent Annapolis lobbyists, Gerard E. Evans and John R. Stierhoff.

The meeting at 3 p.m. Tuesday will be the committee's first opportunity to explore questions raised by a transaction in which the lobbyists steered a lucrative real estate commission to Fulton.

Fulton received about $9,000 for acting as buyer's agent in a deal involving the lobbyists' purchase of an office building in Annapolis.

Evans, Stierhoff and a business partner, contractor Michael Hegarty, bought the building for $600,000 in November.

Several legislators said a report about the deal in The Sun last week raised questions, and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. called on the ethics committee to examine the issue.

Fulton, who defended his role, also asked for a review by the committee.

In a written statement, he said he wanted such a review "so that it would be clear to everyone, as it is to me, that my activities were completely within the law and completely ethical."

Under Maryland's ethics law, legislators are presumed to have a conflict of interest if they have a "close economic association" with a lobbyist.

However, a lawmaker can file a sworn statement, as Fulton did last month, disclosing the relationship and asserting that his objectivity will not be impaired by it.

The statement Fulton filed does not appear to match the accounts that other principals gave about the transaction -- or Fulton's role.

Fulton wrote that he had a presumed conflict of interest on certain issues because "I sold [property at 164 Conduit St.] to developer Mike Hegarty, who is the majority owner of Conduit LLC, which includes minority ownership by two lobbyists, G. Evans and J. Stierhoff."

But Hegarty and the seller's agent said Fulton was the buyer's agent on the deal.

They said Fulton was representing Evans and Stierhoff before Hegarty got involved in the deal.

Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a government watchdog group, said she was troubled that the information Fulton included in his disclosure statement appeared to differ from that detailed in the Sun article.

"If the transaction that was portrayed in the paper is the accurate one, then I don't have much choice but to believe [Fulton's] disclosure is purposefully misleading," Skullney said.

Fulton refused to comment yesterday.

William G. Sommerville, the ethics committee's staff lawyer, said the panel will take up about 30 disclaimer and disclosure statements filed by legislators when it meets next week, including the one filed by Fulton.

Sommerville said the committee normally reviews the statements and discusses any concerns members have in public session.

If a matter needs to be clarified, he said, the committee's staff could be asked to seek more information from the legislator.

Among other actions, he said, the committee can decide that the circumstances of a presumed conflict is such that a legislator should not participate or vote on matters that relate to it.

No set procedure exists for deciding whether an issue warrants a formal investigation to determine if state ethics laws were violated, Sommerville said.

He said the committee will meet in closed session to discuss whether to launch an investigation.

Pub Date: 1/20/99

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