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Lawmakers wrestle with ethics bill; Unlike public, politicians do not view reform as logical, simple step


AMENDMENTS are being drafted and coalitions are being formed in the back rooms of Annapolis.

The issue isn't taxes or spending, but legislative ethics.

During the next couple of weeks, the most far-reaching reform of state ethics laws in 20 years will take center stage in Annapolis. But the legislators who support the proposed legislation without reservations could likely be counted on one hand. Around Annapolis, Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, are voicing concerns about the bill.

Objections to the legislation fall generally into a handful of categories.

"This bill makes us all look like crooks," one delegate lamented recently.

Some legislators say the proposal would hurt their ability to make a living. Still others bristle at a plank that would give the General Assembly's 12-member ethics committee more power over the ethics process.

But the biggest obstacle to passing significant legislation might well be what Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has characterized as an "inside State Circle" mentality.

Miller, a 28-year veteran of the legislature, readily acknowledges that many of his colleagues are out of touch with the public on the ethics issue.

The public, after all, watched wearily during the last year as first a senator, Larry Young, was expelled for ethics violations, then a delegate, Gerald J. Curran, resigned under an ethics cloud. Both were shown in newspaper articles to have capitalized on their elected positions to advance private business interests.

The back-to-back cases of Young and Curran highlighted problems in Maryland's ethics law, much of which dates to 1979, and cast a cloud over the entire Assembly.

In response, Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. pushed legislation to create a high-powered task force to review the ethics law. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin led the study, and his group came back with a wide-ranging proposal that was more ambitious than many legislators had expected.

Even before the ethics bill could be considered this year, more bad news trickled in with a report that a Baltimore delegate had received a lucrative real-estate commission courtesy of two prominent State House lobbyists.

It appeared obvious that the lobbyists never would have steered the commission to Democratic Del. Tony E. Fulton had he not been a member of the General Assembly.

Still, legislators treated Fulton gingerly, and the matter was put to rest by the ethics committee with no witnesses and no real inquiry.

"We all have to make a living," one delegate explained privately. The implication: If that means cultivating real-estate commissions from special-interest lobbyists, so be it.

That attitude is clearly fueling some of the criticism of the ethics legislation.

One provision in the Cardin bill, for example, would prohibit legislators from soliciting lobbyists for contributions to charitable institutions - a practice that has grown in recent years as lawmakers tap into the Annapolis lobbying corps to support their local hospital, Little League or drill team.

The ethics task force concluded that such solicitations put both legislators and lobbyists in an untenable position. Legislators are asking favors; lobbyists are feeling pressure to shell out or risk alienating an Assembly member.

An easy call

To an outsider, it seems like an easy call: Prohibit the practice.

But, in the State House, the proposal has generated protests from legislators who have grown comfortable with their role of charitable rain-maker.

"I'm trying to help my constituents," explains Del. Nathaniel Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat.

Left unasked: Why do legislators consider it part of their official duties to raise money for charities?

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a strong backer of the ethics bill, points out that nothing in the bill would prevent her colleagues from soliciting charitable contributions from "real people" back home.

"I don't get it, I really don't," Bobo, a Howard County Democrat, says of the concerns she has heard in the last few weeks.

As they pore over the legislation, lawmakers have shown great skill in unearthing inconsistencies.

The bill would, they point out, prohibit lawmakers from accepting tickets to sporting events from a lobbyist for the Baltimore Ravens, but it would allow such gifts from Art Modell, the team owner.

"Is that logical?" many ask.

To the public, though, the more appropriate question might be why should a state delegate or senator be accepting tickets from anyone connected to a sports team with huge financial interests before the legislature.

Similarly, lawmakers point out that the bill would ban lobbyists from buying them a meal, but not from throwing a lavish reception for the entire General Assembly or for a legislative committee.

"Is this consistent?" they ask.

Again, the public might ask another question. Since legislators are receiving a daily expense stipend courtesy of the taxpayers during the 90-day session, why can't they buy their own meals and put an end to the receptions, which amount to little more than an Annapolis-by-night party circuit?

Lawmakers also have raised a string of questions about the proposal to ban Assembly members from taking most jobs with state or local governments - a "structural conflict of interest," according to the ethics task force.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger of Baltimore County, a former school nurse, asked Cardin if the ban would stop her from again taking a school nursing job, even if she and every other available nurse were needed to deal with an epidemic, such as Baltimore's syphilis problem.

Cardin seemed perplexed by the query but suggested the Assembly could always change the law to deal with any public health emergency.

Questions such as Hollinger's will no doubt prompt legislators to offer a raft of amendments to weaken the bill in the next few weeks.

Those efforts will provide an interesting test for the leaders of the General Assembly, who can usually control matters in the State House if they want to.

"We said last year that this is one of the important priorities of the legislature," Bobo says. "I hope it remains one of the priorities."

Unnecessary exercise

Del. John F. Wood, chairman of the House committee that will handle the bill, thinks the whole exercise is unnecessary.

While he acknowledges that the Assembly has no politically viable option except to pass some version of the legislation, he doubts much good will come of it. The public, he figures, has already made up its mind about politicians.

"I don't think there's too many in here who like to go home and have people say, 'He's in politics, and he's got a crooked streak down his back a mile wide,"' says Wood, a St. Mary's Democrat.

"But this bill will change the perception of that very little."

Thomas W. Waldron is the State House bureau chief for The Sun

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