Maryland lawmaker Heather R. Mizeur shepherded a bill through the General Assembly this year to establish a new fund supporting the emerging field of nanobiotechnology. In the process, she also succeeded in securing a potential funding source for companies she had registered to represent on Capitol Hill.
The Montgomery County Democratic delegate acknowledges working extensively for a nanobiotechnology company as a congressional lobbyist with the Washington law firm of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Preston Gates Ellis, but she says she got clearance from the state legislature's ethics counsel to sponsor and vote on the legislation.
That company ended its contract with the law firm around the time she introduced the bill. On matters related to other companies, she says she gave "generic advice" to colleagues and was listed as a lobbyist out of an abundance of caution.
Mizeur's involvement in creating the technology fund illustrates the complex and often unquestioned roles of state legislators who also lobby in the U.S. Capitol - just over 30 miles from the Maryland State House.
Maryland law bars legislators from lobbying the state government. But the General Assembly includes several federal lobbyists whose work as lawmakers in Annapolis sometimes intersects with their clients' interests.
"If they are registered lobbyists outside of the legislature, and they are putting in bills that affect their clients, that should be a humongous red flag," says Christopher Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a libertarian-oriented think tank. "I'm not saying they are doing anything improper or illegal. It just sort of presents itself as not being very appropriate."
Overlapping roles of state lawmakers in the private and public sector are common in Maryland's citizen legislature. The General Assembly includes lawyers, teachers and others who have a stake in what the body decides.
But the decision of where to draw the line on potential conflicts of interest is to some extent left up to individual legislators. The General Assembly's Ethics Committee, which is made up of legislators, rarely prohibits a lawmaker from voting because of a conflict of interest.
At least four other Maryland lawmakers are registered as lobbyists in Congress: Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee and a lobbyist on manufacturing and defense issues; Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, chairwoman of the Environmental Matters Committee and who is registered to lobby in Washington for the Johns Hopkins University; Del. Gerron S. Levi, a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO; and Sen. Jim Rosapepe, who is a federal lobbyist for states on issues of tax fairness.
William G. Somerville, the General Assembly's ethics counsel, says nearly all lawmakers in the 188-member, part-time legislature will have some appearance of a conflict of interest because of the need to supplement their income from the state with outside employment. (Senators and delegates make $43,500; presiding officers earn $56,500.)
He says the state's ethics rules are designed to provide disclosure and encourage lawmakers to participate in areas where they are knowledgeable, so that a farmer can participate in debates about agriculture and a doctor on health care issues, for example.
"It comes up all the time; conflicts of interest are inevitable," Somerville says. "The people who know most about a bill, you don't want them keeping their mouths shut, just as long as everyone knows what their interests are."
Some lawmakers hold themselves to stricter standards than others. For example, former Del. John G. Trueschler, a Baltimore County Republican, refused to vote on or even discuss legislation to deal with a BGE rate increase in 2006 because his father was once chairman of the company and he owned company stock.
Under Maryland's rules, lawmakers are instructed to file a "disclaimer of conflict" in certain situations, such as when their employer would be affected by proposed legislation in a way that similar companies wouldn't be affected. On the form, they assert they can vote on the matter objectively and in the public's interest.
The joint committee on legislative ethics, comprising six members from each chamber, reviews the forms and may recommend that lawmakers recuse themselves.
McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, last filed to disclose the "appearance or presumption of a conflict of interest" because of her work with Hopkins in 2000, when the institution was expected to benefit from a cigarette restitution fund. She filed forms in earlier years because the university received state funds.
Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat, has disclosed Washington clients, but not since 1991. This year in Congress, she registered to lobby for an aerospace technology firm and a battery manufacturer.
Rosapepe, a Democrat representing Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, registered as a lobbyist in Washington for the Multistate Tax Commission.
Levi, a Prince George's County Democrat serving her first term, disclosed her employment with the AFL-CIO's national office. While she co-sponsored several bills backed by the AFL-CIO, she says her legislative work focused on her campaign platform and issues before the Judiciary Committee, on which she sits.
"I would guess it's the same with being in any profession. I just try to listen to the merits of any particular issue," Levi says. "There may be some things I understand better because of my position as a lobbyist."
Mizeur, who has left her position as a congressional lobbyist with Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Gates, has not filed any disclaimer forms with the General Assembly. She says that based on her conversation with the ethics counsel, it was not necessary.
She denies that there were any conflicts with her activism on nanobiotechnology, a science that uses tiny materials in the development of treatments for disease.
She did work for some nanobiotechnology firms, especially FEI Co., which makes electron microscopes. But she says the client relationship with Hillsboro, Ore.-based FEI ended in February, when she filed the bill to create the fund that would direct state funding to such research starting next year.
She says she had worked with that company on a strategy for working in Maryland with federal agencies in the state.
"I am very interested in seeing Maryland get the benefit from a company coming in and doing massive economic development here when they can choose to do it in California," she says. "I'm not doing any shilling for any clients."
In addition to the fund Mizeur championed - the size of which is up to the governor to determine - the nanobiotechnology industry also benefited this year from $5.4 million in state funding, including $3 million for grants awarded under a competitive basis.
FEI might compete for some of that funding, and Mizeur says she didn't get involved in the budget process to set aside the money, though she did vote in favor of it.
Most states prohibit lawmakers from lobbying in their home states, though it's less clear how they deal with lobbying on the federal level because few have hard-and-fast rules, says Peggy Kerns, director of the ethics center at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
She says many legislatures don't want to make it too easy for lawmakers to recuse themselves because the public expects them to vote on issues.
"The reason behind conflict-of-interest laws is to make sure someone's personal interest doesn't cross over into their public sector interest," Kerns says. "How that plays out really depends on someone's own ethical standards and what they feel is the ethical thing."