Assembly scornful of bill on ethics; Called needless insult, reform expected to pass; 'Affronted by whole thing'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The General Assembly begins work this week on major ethics reform legislation -- a bill many lawmakers say is unnecessary and insulting, but one that everyone agrees will nonetheless pass overwhelmingly.

No legislation introduced in the first three weeks of the Assembly's 90-day session has been more carefully scrutinized -- its provisions affect each of the 188 legislators -- and none has prompted more grumbling.

The bill, which was written by a task force in the wake of last year's expulsion of a senator and the forced resignation of a delegate, seeks to more clearly define the boundaries separating legislators from special interests.

The wide-ranging measure would, for example, ban most gifts from lobbyists to legislators, prohibit lawmakers from voting on bills in which they have a direct financial interest, and establish a full-time ethics adviser to help senators and delegates avoid conflicts of interest.

The bill goes on to prohibit legislators' relatives from being hired at the General Assembly, bar lawmakers from taking jobs with state or local government agencies, and call for the Internet posting of public officials' financial disclosure forms.

While it's unlikely that many legislators will take the political risk of voting against the ethics reform bill, there are widespread complaints that it paints all elected officials as ethically suspect.

"I think this bill is an overreaction to something the public really doesn't care about," said Del. Clarence Davis, a 16-year veteran of the legislature from East Baltimore. "I'm affronted by the whole thing."

Legislative leaders had talked confidently a few weeks ago about enacting the bill swiftly with no amendments. But interviews with unhappy lawmakers indicate that at least modest changes are likely after House and Senate committees formally take up the measure Tuesday.

"I think the main concepts that they put in the bill will stay intact, but there may be a little fine-tuning," said House Speaker Casper R.Taylor Jr.

Nearly every legislator in Annapolis seems to have a complaint.

Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat, said the measure would prohibit him from asking an official or lobbyist for the Rite Aid pharmacy chain to help Little League teams in his district. But he could go to a representative of CVS Corp. stores, which do not have a lobbyist in Annapolis, and ask for such a donation.

"It takes away some of the things I can do as a legislator to help my constituents," said Oaks.

Grandfather clause

Advocates for the bill say that provision is necessary to stop the widespread practice of legislators asking lobbyists for contributions to their favorite charities -- requests that lobbyists complain put them in an awkward spot.

Oaks and others also object to a provision that would prohibit lawmakers from accepting jobs with state or local governments, except teaching or public safety posts.

"Now we become a different class of citizens?" said Oaks, an employee of the Injured Workers Insurance Fund, a quasi-state agency.

Oaks and other legislators with state and local government jobs would be allowed to keep them under a grandfather clause.

Del. Dana Lee Dembrow says, for example, that his 6-year-old daughter may want to work for a lawmaker when she gets to college.

If Dembrow remains in the legislature another 12 years, she would be unable to take a paid position.

"Maybe she wants to come intern as a student at the University of Maryland. Should she be barred?" asked Dembrow, a Montgomery Democrat.

Even Taylor has a change in mind.

Among other things, the bill would ban lobbyists from buying meals or alcoholic beverages for individual legislators. While most lawmakers receive a taxpayer-paid daily meal allowance, some who live near Annapolis are not entitled to reimbursements for meals.

Some of those legislators would not be able to go out to dinner with lobbyists to discuss issues unless they paid for the meal out of their own pockets, which would be unfair to them, Taylor said.

"If we are making this sea change in our eating habits, we are probably creating an inadvertent problem we didn't want to create," Taylor said.

New laws unnecessary?

In a convulsive session last year, the Senate expelled Larry Young for ethics violations, and Young is now under criminal indictment.

A few weeks later, Gerald J. Curran resigned from the House of Delegates amid questions about some of his insurance business dealings.

For many lawmakers, those controversies prove that the system works and new laws are not necessary.

While the Assembly likely can deal with most of the specific complaints about the bill, it appears that little can be done to make the whole issue more palatable to legislators.

Del. John F. Wood Jr., who as chairman of the Commerce and Government Matters Committee will play a key role shepherding the bill through the House, said flatly that the legislation is not needed.

"Out of 188 legislators, how many do you think are going to sell themselves for a drink or a meal?" said Wood, a Southern Maryland Democrat.

"Do we have a big problem? No," added Wood. "Do we have a problem? Maybe some small problems here or there. But it's not big enough that we have to get excited about it."

Some legislators disagree.

"I'm hearing a lot of complaints that the bill is too unclear, too tough," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard Democrat. "I don't think it's too strict."

Improving perceptions

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he, like Taylor, expects the bill to be enacted with few changes -- and said the public will be paying close attention to the result.

"I think sometimes an inside-the-Beltway mentality creeps into the State House," Miller said. "And there's a certain disconnect with our constituents when it comes to issues such as this. It's important we continue to improve the perception of elected officials."

House and Senate committees will hold a hearing on the ethics bill at 6: 30 p.m. Tuesday in the joint hearing room of the Legislative Services Building near the State House in Annapolis.

Ethics proposal

The ethics bill pending before the General Assembly would:

Require legislators to file financial disclosure forms earlier and generally report income sources of $500 or more.

Disqualify legislators from voting on issues in which they, their employers or business partners have a direct financial interest. Under current law, legislators can vote on such issues as long s they disclose their conflict of interest.

Add a full-time legal counsel to advise lawmakers about ethics and hold mandatory annual training sessions on ethics issues.

Give more authority -- including subpoena power -- to the joint legislative committee that now handles complaints filed against legislators.

Bar lawmakers from soliciting gifts or contributions from lobbyists on behalf of another person or entity, including charitable organizations.

Prohibit lawmakers from doing consulting work for, or taking jobs with, state or local governments.

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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