A proposal to impose tough new sanctions on lobbyists who break the law won broad support yesterday from a task force set up in the wake of several well-publicized scandals.
Former House Majority Leader Donald B. Robertson, who chairs the General Assembly's task force on lobbying ethics, urged the panel yesterday to endorse a proposal to give the State Ethics Commission the power to bar paid lobbyists who commit crimes in the course of doing business from practicing their profession.
Under the proposal, the commission could impose fines or take other action against lobbyists found to have violated Maryland's ethics laws.
The task force will not vote on the measure until September, but the draft legislation drew little criticism from panel members, including four lobbyists, in the wake of the conviction this month of lobbyist Gerard E. Evans on charges of defrauding his clients.
The Robertson proposal would, in effect, turn Maryland's lobbyist registration law into a licensing program. It would give the ethics commission a range of sanctions it could impose - from fines for violations of lobbying laws to revocation for conviction of a state or federal crime related to a lobbyist's professional activities.
Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, said the sanctions language was quite strong.
"This is what we begged the task force to consider as a priority item - known consequences for violators of the law," she said.
Not so well received was Robertson's recommendation that lobbyists be banned from participating in the campaign fund-raising process.
Lobbyists and legislators on the panel expressed misgivings about the chairman's proposal to bar lobbyists from making campaign contributions or appearing at political fund-raisers for candidates for state office. The suggested ban, which would need approval by the General Assembly, would cover all legislative races, as well as candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller and attorney general
The sanctions proposal would allow the ethics commission to impose a civil fine of up to $5,000 for each violation of state lobbying laws or suspend the lobbyist for up to three years for "knowingly and willfully" violating those laws. It would also increase the criminal fine for a misdemeanor conviction from $1,000 to $10,000.
If a lobbyist is convicted of a crime related to lobbying, the commission also would be authorized to suspend or bar the violator permanently.
Such sanctions could prevent a situation similar to the case of prominent lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, who has been able to continue representing clients before the legislature in spite of a federal mail fraud conviction that led to his disbarment. Nothing in the law now would prevent Evans from resuming a lobbying career after any sentence is completed.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said the sanctions proposal reflects his long-held view that the lobbying profession should be regulated.
"It's mainstream in our culture to have professional groups regulated by codes of ethics," he said.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he is taking a "wait and see" approach to lobbying legislation but added that he's not opposed to sanctions.
Most of the debate at the commission's meeting centered on the proposal to prohibit lobbyists, who are barred from soliciting contributions or raising money for legislators, from making contributions or accepting tickets to fund-raisers from their clients.
Sen. Michael J. Collins, co-chairman of the General Assembly's joint ethics committee, led the charge against the proposal. The Baltimore County Democrat dismissed the contribution ban as a "feel-good exercise" and said lobbyists' individual contributions - now limited to $10,000 per four-year election cycle - have little impact on the political process.
Joel Rozner, one of the lobbyists on the task force, said preventing him from attending fund-raisers on behalf of clients would be unreasonable.
Robertson said the negative reaction came as no surprise. He said he intended to take the proposal, with few changes, to public hearings next month. "I don't think that the last vote has been counted," he said.