Legislature's ethically gray fund raising

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LEGISLATORS' habit of raking in as many campaign contributions as possible in the final hours before the fund-raiser-free zone of the General Assembly session -- already plenty unsavory in many eyes -- has edged even further into an ethical gray area this year because of last week's special session.

Although lawmakers went home Thursday after passing a medical malpractice bill, they did not, technically, adjourn.

Taking advantage of quirks in the Assembly's centuries-old rules, legislators officially went into recess until Jan. 11 -- the day before the regular session begins -- so they could put off votes on whether to override several of the governor's vetoes.

Thus, the fund-raisers lawmakers have scheduled between now and Jan. 12 would, technically, occur while the legislature is in session -- with votes looming on the veto overrides, possibly including one on the malpractice bill.

But if you were looking forward to a rubber-chicken dinner with your local delegate, don't worry: William G. Somerville, the Assembly's ethics counsel, has concluded the law prohibiting fund raising during the legislative session does not apply.

The law says state elected officials may not "receive a contribution, conduct a fund-raising event [or] solicit or sell a ticket to a fund-raising event" during the annual 90-day legislative session.

"None of these restrictions apply during a special session," Somerville wrote in an opinion last month.

James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, said that interpretation makes no sense.

The purpose of the law is to prevent interest groups from influencing legislation at hand through campaign contributions, and it shouldn't matter whether legislators are meeting in special or regular session, he said.

"The ban should apply during any session," Browning said. "Otherwise, lawmakers will be taking checks at night from the very people who will be lobbying them in their office the next day."

Somerville did caution legislators that aggressive fund raising during this period could create a perception of impropriety.

"Therefore, I would advise that campaign fund-raising activities not be scheduled for the express purpose of coinciding with the special session, and additionally that solicitations not be made during the special session to individuals or entities specifically affected by the legislation under consideration," he wrote. "Any previously scheduled event may proceed as planned, however."

In this case, the "entities specifically affected by the legislation under consideration" include some of state government's most generous contributors -- doctors, lawyers, hospitals and insurance companies.

The list grows more extensive when groups affected by other bills subject to possible veto overrides are thrown into the mix.

Among them are bills that would require higher wages for employees of state contractors, a favorite cause of labor unions, and another that would increase corporate taxes to pay for college tuition limits.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and Senate Finance Committee chairman, said he's not changing his annual pre-session fund-raiser, set for tomorrow, but he's being more careful about drumming up contributions from the health care and insurance industries.

"Regardless of what the law is, there is a perception out there that this may be irregular, so I think those of us that are out there fund raising right now need to be very sensitive," Middleton said.

Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Howard County Democrat, said he checked with the attorney general's office as soon as the special session was called to make sure his fund-raiser, scheduled for tomorrow, would be legal -- an important step since Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. is a co-host of the event.

Since the governor called for the session on slightly more than a week's notice, Quinter said there wasn't much he could do to reschedule the fund-raiser.

"It was completely set up ahead of time," he said. "Hundreds of invitations had gone out, and I already had a caterer hired."

But, he said, just because the veto overrides will come up a day earlier than they would otherwise, it doesn't mean holding a fund-raiser right now is the same as having one in the middle of regular session.

"It's not really different from any other interim," Quinter said.

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