Last year was a rough one for Baltimoreans in search of honest government. Not only did former state Sen. Catherine Pugh step down as mayor as prosecutors tightened the net in the “Healthy Holly” scandal (for which she may be facing nearly five years in prison), but a veteran lawmaker — the former chair of the city’s House delegation — negotiated a federal plea deal for taking bribes in return for political favors. Much has come out about the individuals and organizations who were a party to Ms. Pugh’s fraudulent behavior (the resulting shakeup at the University of Maryland Medical System has been perhaps the most significant). But not so much about those connected with Del. Cheryl D. Glenn, whose federal plea deal was formally accepted in U.S. District Court last month. Who was paying off Delegate Glenn and what exactly were those arrangements about? Nobody is saying, and that’s a problem.
Recently, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office informed this newspaper that a request to review Delegate Glenn’s email related to the bribery case has been denied under the Maryland Public Information Act. The reason? Here’s the two-word summary: “legislative privilege.”
Most readers are likely unfamiliar with that term but almost certainly aware of a related one: “executive privilege.” That legal construct was lobbed around quite a bit in connection with the impeachment of President Donald Trump. In a nutshell, it is the right of elected officials to speak freely. In the case of President Trump, with his top advisers. In the case of Delegate Glenn, with those seeking help with legislation in Annapolis. There are arguments to be made in favor of privilege. Legislators whose every conversation could be examined by anyone, friend, foe or even impartial bystander, would surely be disinclined to be candid whether in private conversation or email.
The attorney general may well be correct in this reading of the state constitution. Maryland courts have certainly endorsed a robust interpretation of the privilege in the past — to the point that it’s made it difficult to prosecute lawmakers for misconduct in a state court. And it’s also fair to point out that federal prosecutors might have made this matter moot if they had simply required that the full circumstances of Delegate Glenn’s misdeeds be outlined in her plea agreement. They should have if the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland is serious about restoring public confidence in local government. In many respects, this is corruption that transcends Baltimore. Ms. Glenn was acting as a member of the Maryland House of Delegates. Even Mayor Pugh’s misdeeds have roots in her days as a member of the Maryland Senate. How can voters from any part of Maryland have confidence that there’s someone keeping track of legislative misbehavior in Annapolis if it’s constantly shielded from public view? It’s not difficult to see the compelling public interest here.
Too often, we fear, the average reader’s eyes glaze over when words like “public information” or “right to know” or “sunshine laws” are printed on the page. So let’s put this in the simplest terms possible: Why should those who participate in corrupt practices get no public scrutiny? How can voters make informed judgments about what’s happening in City Hall or the State House (or Congress and the White House, for that matter) if they are never given a full picture of how business is done? The General Assembly needs to fix this. Whether it requires an amendment to the state constitution or similar definitive action, it’s time to embrace open government and transparency. Let the sun shine into all the nooks and crannies, particularly when it involves criminal behavior. Why should a politician who has admitted wrongdoing still be shielded? It makes no sense.
Finally, we would offer this latest outrage as yet another bit of evidence that Maryland needs to strengthen its public information act. Legislation to do so, House Bill 502 (S.B. 590), received its first public hearing just this past Tuesday. Most significantly, it addresses one of the more common misadventures — “protracted and unresolved” disputes on what information can or can’t be released by state government — by giving greater authority to an independent board and ombudsman to settle them. It would not address legislative privilege, but it would certainly help in a myriad of other cases where average citizens, including news reporters, are frustrated in their attempts to seek accountability.