Hogan proposes Maryland government ethics reforms

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan proposes ethics reforms.

Following allegations of ethical lapses by state lawmakers, Gov. Larry Hogan proposed a broad package of reforms Thursday, saying, "We cannot allow a culture of corruption to take root."

Standing on the steps of the State House, Hogan announced legislation that would more clearly prohibit members of the General Assembly from voting on bills that would help them financially and give the state ethics commission oversight of legislators accused of missteps.

Hogan also proposed making former state employees wait a year before taking a job as a lobbyist, reforming how local liquor board appointments are made and forcing the House of Delegates and state Senate to broadcast sessions online. And he is again seeking to establish a nonpartisan commission to draw legislative and congressional districts following the next census.

The Republican governor said he's following up on his promises of "cleaning up the mess of Annapolis and restoring integrity to our state capital."

This month, a pair of scandals ensnared a former, a current and a prospective state lawmaker.

"We are now also painfully aware that current and former members of our own legislature, along with local government officials and others, have been abusing the public trust and using their offices for self-enrichment and criminal activity," Hogan said. "This type of conduct is disgraceful and must no longer be tolerated in our great state."

Last week, an aide to Democratic Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh was indicted on campaign finance violations. The aide, Gary Brown Jr., had been appointed to a vacant seat in the House. The governor rescinded Brown's appointment after the indictment was made public.

Meanwhile, in Prince George's County, two liquor board officials and two business owners were indicted this month on federal charges in a bribery scandal.

Federal court documents describe an unnamed state lawmaker accepting cash in exchange for voting for a liquor bill. In the same case, a former state delegate from Prince George's, Will Campos, pleaded guilty to accepting cash bribes while on the Prince George's County Council in exchange for directing government grants to nonprofits associated with business owners who had given him money.

After announcing his proposals, Hogan walked up the State House steps to deliver them to the House of Delegates and state Senate, where nearly two-thirds of members are Democrats. Leaders of both chambers said they would consider the governor's plans but did not commit to supporting them.

Senate Majority Leader Douglas J.J. Peters said he hadn't reviewed the governor's proposals, but generally supports making lawmakers' work more transparent to the public. He said Democratic leaders encourage their members to meet with ethics advisers and disclose any possible conflicts of interest.

"We've really moved forward with transparency. I don't think any of us would not support more transparency," said Peters, who represents Prince George's County.

A spokesman for Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said several senators were already drafting ethics legislation. In a statement, the Calvert County Democrat said he looked forward to reviewing the governor's proposals.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said he would work with Hogan to ensure that "Maryland has the highest standards of transparency and ethics."

Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings said he hopes members of both parties can get behind Hogan's proposals.

"This should not be anything about politics," said Jennings, who represents Harford and Baltimore counties. "This should be about letting the voters and the public know that they can trust their state government to do what is ethically moral and what is right."

House Minority Leader Nic Kipke, who represents Anne Arundel County, said Hogan's ideas "would go a long way to deter some of the bad behavior that occurs."

The government watchdog group Common Cause cheered Hogan's proposals, several of which the organization has pushed variations of for years. The group's executive director, Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, said she welcomed the governor's support.

"It's very exciting to see good government being put front and center," she said.

In recent years, some ethics scandals have centered on whether lawmakers properly disclosed potential conflicts, not on the conflicts themselves.

For instance, Del. Dan Morhaim came under ethics scrutiny last year for advocating for medical marijuana policies without also disclosing he had agreed to run a medical marijuana dispensary.

Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat, says he followed all ethics laws when he disclosed that he might do consulting for such companies.

A committee of legislators weighed whether his disclosure was sufficient — not whether the relationship was improper. Those proceedings are confidential, and it is not clear whether they have concluded.

In another case, Del. Tony McConkey, an Anne Arundel County Republican, was reprimanded by his colleagues in 2013 after he failed to disclose a conflict of interest and pushed legislation that directly benefited him. McConkey had offered an amendment to a bill that would have made it easier for him to pay a fine in order to have his real estate license reinstated.

And in 2012, Democratic Sen. Ulysses Currie of Prince George's County was disciplined by his colleagues after he was accused of using his position to help Shoppers Food Warehouse, which paid him as a consultant. Currie was acquitted of federal charges, but senators voted to censure him and he lost his leadership positions.

If lawmakers passed Hogan's proposal, an independent commission, not colleagues, would weigh whether legislators broke ethics rules.

Currently, lawmakers can file paperwork that discloses a "presumed or apparent" conflict of interest on a topic or bill and then sign a document swearing they are able to vote on those matters "fairly, objectively, and in the public interest."

Hogan's proposal would eliminate that waiver. The bill would prohibit lawmakers from "pushing or effecting" legislation that directly benefits their employer or a business they own, including sponsoring such bills, lobbying their colleagues or voting when they have a declared conflict of interest.

Another proposal from Hogan would expand a "cooling off" period that currently requires former lawmakers to sit out one year or one General Assembly session before coming back to Annapolis as lobbyists. Hogan would expand the cooling-off period to include members of the executive branch staff and the legislative staff.

In the third year of Gov. Martin O'Malley's second term, two of his top aides left the administration and immediately became lobbyists. Many aides to the presiding officers also have become lobbyists. Hogan's proposal would prohibit such a transition without the waiting period.

Hogan is also sponsoring a bill to require that all meetings of the General Assembly be live-streamed. He put $1.2 million in his budget to pay for cameras to be added to the House and Senate chambers.

Currently the legislature's committee hearings are live-streamed, but full sessions of the House and Senate — when final votes on bills are taken — only have audio streaming. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has pushed for cameras in both chambers.

Hogan said Maryland is one of only seven states that don't have video streaming of legislative sessions.

On liquor boards, Hogan said appointments in some counties are a vestige of a political patronage system. His proposal would require senators to nominate prospective liquor board members, who would be reviewed by the state ethics commission before being appointed.

Liquor board appointment processes vary by jurisdiction. Last year, lawmakers voted to remove the state entirely from the process of appointing Baltimore's liquor board members. That authority now rests with the mayor and City Council.

For the second consecutive year, Hogan proposed revamping the way Maryland is divided into legislative and congressional districts. The current system gives the power to draw congressional districts to the General Assembly and the power to draw legislative districts to the governor.

Maryland's congressional districts have been criticized for unfairly benefiting Democrats. The districts have been described as among the most gerrymandered in the nation.

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

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