Loose ethics in State House; Tony Fulton: Panel clears him of wrongdoing, but 'appearance of impropriety' remains.


THE General Assembly's ethics committee wasted little time Tuesday whitewashing what seems like a clear breach of legislative behavior. The members found nothing wrong in a delegate pocketing a $9,000 real-estate fee thrown his way by two lobbyists. There wasn't even a cursory investigation.

No one was interviewed, not Del. Tony E. Fulton or the two lobbyists who steered the lucrative fee to him. Indeed, the group simply accepted Mr. Fulton's written explanation that the deal met the letter of the law. Then, to cover themselves, panel members agreed to warn Mr. Fulton about "an appearance of impropriety."

Once again, the inability of lawmakers to police themselves -- except in extreme cases -- raises grave concerns about the commitment of state lawmakers to abide by a strict code of conduct.

No doubt, Mr. Fulton's business deal creates "an appearance of impropriety." Indeed, taking that $9,000 fee is the kind of "close economic association" with lobbyists that is barred by law. But Mr. Fulton used a giant loophole in the statute: By filing a statement saying this fee won't influence his votes, Mr. Fulton absolved himself of any conflict.

Such a sham fools no one. Giving a legislator business fees puts lobbyists in an enviable position when they seek that lawmaker's vote on their clients' bills. Every vote Mr. Fulton casts on these bills will be viewed with suspicion.

The eagerness of this committee to wash its hands of the Fulton matter poses concerns about proposed reforms this session.

A package of ethics changes is supported by legislative leaders. But the reforms would not have changed Mr. Fulton's ability to manipulate the system. And no reform will put backbone into a legislature unwilling to enforce its own standards.

Last year's ethics scandals -- one senator expelled, one delegate pressured to resign -- are now a distant memory. Putting the stamp of approval on Mr. Fulton's fee arrangement could open the door for other lobbyists to work out similar deals with lawmakers willing to circumvent the system. It makes all legislators look bad.

Pub Date: 1/28/99

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