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Ethics in Annapolis

Maryland ethics reform legislation is welcome, but voters need to do a better job of demanding the highest standards from politicians.

We certainly appreciate the caution at the end of Friday's news release from the Maryland U.S. Attorney's Office that the indictment of Sen. Nathaniel Oaks "is not a finding of guilt" and that he should be "presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty." But we would also presume that someone allegedly caught on tape accepting more than $15,000 in cash for the use of his prestige of office to support what turned out to be a non-existent affordable housing development would demonstrate enough embarrassment not to show up on the Senate floor three days later. The fact that he strolled in and took his seat at the back of the chamber for the final day of the General Assembly session is a reminder of just how badly public confidence in the institution has been damaged this year.

Mr. Oaks is the third current or former member of the legislature to face a federal corruption indictment in the last three months. Meanwhile, much of the session was taken up with the legislature's investigation and reprimand of Del. Dan Morhaim, who failed to adequately disclose paid work for (and potential future financial stake in) a company that applied for a license to produce medical marijuana. The vast majority of legislators who provide honest services for their constituents should be furious.

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The accusations contained in Senator Oaks' indictment are particularly egregious. Federal prosecutors allege that he wrote two letters on his legislative letterhead providing false assurances to the Department of Housing and Urban Development that the supposed housing project had state support, and after he had already accepted $10,300 for his services, he agreed to introduce legislation to provide up to $250,000 in state funds to support it — for which he was paid another $5,000.

The situation is reminiscent in some ways of Sen. Ulysses Currie's paid advocacy on behalf of a grocery store chain, which he did without disclosing his professional relationship to various state officials he lobbied in his official capacity. Mr. Currie was found not guilty in court — based largely on the incredible defense that he wasn't smart enough to be corrupt — though he was censured by the Senate. But unlike Mr. Currie, Mr. Oaks allegedly took envelopes full of cash and was recorded talking about a desire to avoid saying anything incriminating on tape, supposedly even going so far as to develop a code word ("lollypop") for $1,000, as in, drafting a bond bill to help a developer would be a five lollypop job.

The ethics reform legislation Gov. Larry Hogan proposed this year — and which was enacted by the General Assembly after some changes to avoid potential separation-of-powers issues — is a welcome counterpoint that closes a number of loopholes. It increases disclosure requirements and expands the definition of a conflict of interest, and it establishes a community advisory board to recommend future changes to the ethics laws. Several of the new law's provisions appear tailored specifically to the Morhaim case, and it's plausible that, had they been enacted, they might have prevented the scandal. Dr. Morhaim has insisted throughout that he intended to follow the law and believed he was doing so.

But if a legislator is determined to break the law, there is little that can stop him or her. The fear of getting caught should help — and certainly we thank U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein for his diligence in pursuing public corruption investigations during his time in Maryland — but the evidence suggests it's not sufficient. After all, Mr. Oaks has been convicted before, having been found guilty of stealing his own campaign funds 30 years ago.

Too often, corrupt politicians evade the one punishment that's really meaningful to them: the permanent loss of public office and prestige. Voters returned Mr. Oaks to office at their first opportunity after his 1988 conviction, and that's not an isolated case. Even amid the depths of his corruption scandal, Senator Currie won re-election unopposed. Del. Tony McConkey, who was reprimanded for pursuing legislation that would have directly benefited him, was easily re-elected. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon came within a hair's breadth of regaining the office she was forced to resign in disgrace.

The initial version of Governor Hogan's ethics legislation took the job of investigating possible legislative corruption out of the General Assembly's hands and gave it to a newly beefed up state ethics commission. His contention was that the legislature couldn't be trusted to police itself, but if voters want to know who's really falling down on the job of holding public officials to high ethical standards, they should look in the mirror.

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