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Ethical backsliding

Perhaps the only welcome consequence of state Sen. Ulysses Currie's disgrace and censure over his apparent use of his public office for private gain was Senate PresidentThomas V. Mike Miller's creation of a special work group on ethics. The bipartisan committee, formed in the aftermath of Mr. Currie's acquittal in court, was charged with finding legislation to improve ethics practices in state government and to do so during the current General Assembly session. It is a disappointment, then, that one of its first recommendations is for a bill that would actually weaken ethics standards.

The committee is backing two bills. The first is a long-overdue requirement that legislators' financial disclosure forms (and later those of other government officials) be posted online. Now they are only available at the state ethics commission's office in Annapolis, and legislators are notified of the identities of those who review the forms, which tends to have a chilling effect on the examination of what are, in fact, public documents. But the second bill reduces the level of disclosure required for local government officials. It comes in response to unsubstantiated fears by local officials and relies on faulty assumptions about the difference between state and local government.

Last year, the General Assembly passed a law requiring local governments to adopt ethics rules for themselves and for school boards that are at least as strict as the state requirements. That meant disclosure of any interest an official owns in a corporation, partnership, limited liability partnership or limited liability company. The proposed legislation — which is sponsored by Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat, and has the backing of the Maryland Association of Counties — would limit the disclosure only to those companies that do business with or are regulated by the local government in question.

In written testimony on the matter, MACO called the requirements in current law "onerous" and a potential deterrent to those who would want to serve in local government or on a school board. Furthermore, the association argued that the generally more limited scope of power these officials wield does not warrant such a high level of disclosure.

That's nonsense. The new requirements are only now being implemented, so the notion that they would prevent qualified candidates from seeking to serve is entirely speculative. And even if local officials may deal with issues of a different scope than state lawmakers, they still act on budgets that reach, at a minimum, into the millions of taxpayer dollars — and frequently into the billions. Furthermore, since local government bodies are much smaller than the General Assembly, individual members tend to wield much greater influence over the outcome of any decision.

The point of financial disclosure is not just so officials can make clear any existing conflicts of interest at the time they take their posts but so that taxpayers can monitor their activities to make sure new conflicts don't arise. The proposed law would require officials to file amendments to their forms within 30 days if a business interest becomes disclosable, but by then, it could be too late for the public to bring meaningful scrutiny to a questionable government action.

Local governments and even school boards routinely enter into contracts with all manner of corporations large and small, local and multi-national. There is no reason to think that the business interests of the officials who serve on that level are any less relevant than those of state legislators or the governor.

Rather than weakening ethics laws, the Senate's new ethics work group would do better to consider the actual flaws in the system exposed by Mr. Currie's failure to report his nearly $250,000 in income from Shoppers Food Warehouse, and by the recent revelation that Sen. Robert Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat who is now running for Congress, failed to report his employment by a Washington lobbying firm on his disclosure forms. Along with its recommendation to censure Mr. Currie, the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics suggested that all lawmakers should be required to meet with the General Assembly's ethics counsel to review their disclosure forms and tax returns. In both the Currie and Garagiola cases, that would have raised a red flag. The legislature should reject the local government disclosure bill and instead codify that suggestion in law.

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