The chairman of the Maryland Republican Party accused a senior Democratic lawmaker yesterday of benefiting financially from defeating drunken-driving legislation - a charge that was quickly repudiated by top lawmakers from both parties.
Michael Steele, the Republican chairman, asked the General Assembly's joint ethics committee to launch an investigation of his conflict-of-interest accusation against Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Vallario, a Prince George's Democrat, is a lawyer. At an Annapolis news conference, Steele said Vallario's role in defeating legislation that would have increased penalties for drunken driving "raises a funny smell."
In a press release on Republican Party letterhead, Steele said "Vallario's actions in killing legislation in the Judiciary Committee resulted in direct financial benefit to Vallario through his law practice."
Asked whether he could prove that allegation, Steele acknowledged he could not. "I haven't seen his payroll. I haven't seen his books," he said.
But Steele but expressed confidence that an investigation would show Vallario had profited from his actions as a legislator. "If we get into an investigation, we will show it," Steele said.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said he would not open an investigation. "I'm very disappointed in the Republican Party for stooping to this level," the Cumberland Democrat said.
Vallario called Steele's accusation "ludicrous."
He said the bill in question, which would have stiffened penalties for repeat offenders, was turned down because it arrived from the Senate in a completely rewritten form too late in the session for the committee to consider it. He said the Senate bill could be the starting point for legislation next year and that he might support it.
Steele said he was calling for the investigation on his authority as party chairman. He said he had not consulted with the party's state central committee or legal counsel before making the accusation, but had informed the Assembly's Republican leadership of his intentions. "I speak for the entire Republican Party," he said.
But leading GOP lawmakers said Steele didn't speak for them. "This is not an ethics violation, and he was told that by the Republican leadership," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, the House minority whip. Senate Minority Leader Martin G. Madden said that when Steele informed legislators of his plans, "We urged Michael to take a different venue." He said that raising the matter as an ethics violation was "not appropriate."
Flanagan, a Howard County lawyer, questioned Steele's premise that keeping more lenient penalties for drunken drivers would enrich Vallario, whose firm handles many such cases. "The contrary is true. The tougher you make the laws, the more people are willing to pay their lawyers to go through the criminal justice process," he said.
Steele contended that Vallario should recuse himself from any consideration of drunken-driving bills, one of the main topics handled by the Judiciary Committee.
But William Somerville, the Assembly's ethics counsel, said by Steele's logic, "If you had a tax cut bill, every taxpayer would have to recuse himself."