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Opportunity in Md. political corruption

State Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks, a longtime Baltimore state legislator, has been charged in U.S. District Court with accepting cash payments in exchange for using his position to influence a development project, court records show.

Looking back on Maryland's 2017 political season so far, the only players busier than the governor, legislators, Annapolis staffers, party operatives and political geeks like me were, unfortunately, prosecutors.

This session of the Maryland General Assembly began and ended with high profile indictments for various alleged political crimes. Among this latest spate of accused pay-to-players: former Prince George's County delegates William Campos and Michael Vaughn; Baltimore Sen. Nathaniel Oaks; and former Baltimore delegate-designee and current mayoral aide Gary Brown.

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Ominous notifications also went out from the Maryland U. S. Attorney's office to individuals in and around Baltimore County government alerting them to the fact that electronic FBI surveillance of calls to and from an unspecified local telephone number had occurred in the recent past. These notifications have politicos in Annapolis and Towson buzzing about where, when, and whose shoe will potentially drop next.

Unfortunately, Maryland has been here many times before. When I think of political scandal in Maryland, I think of two distinct eras.

The first era spanned the 1960s and 1970s. Much of that abuse has since been attributed to systemic flaws. Positions such as governor and county executive were low pay offices. This ratcheted up pressures on individuals passing up more lucrative private sector jobs to find creative ways to pad their incomes.

Crusading prosecutors went after high profile targets like Vice President Spiro Agnew, Gov. Marvin Mandel, United States Sen. Daniel Brewster, Congressman Edward Garmatz, County Executives Dale Anderson (Baltimore) and Joseph Alton (Anne Arundel), and powerful Baltimore Del. George Santoni with missionary zeal rivaling Dr. Van Helsing's pursuit of Dracula.

The next era extended from the 1980s to today. While many of the earlier systemic flaws had been addressed, corruption continued, perpetrated by lone wolf actors motivated by base personal and political interests. Notable figures investigated included Baltimore City Mayor Sheila Dixon, Council President Walter Orlinsky and Comptroller Jackie McLean; former state senators Tommy Bromwell and Larry Young; then-Del. Nathaniel Oaks (he was appointed to the Senate to fill a vacant seat in February); and county executives John Leopold (Anne Arundel) and Jack Johnson (Prince George's).

Not all of these investigations resulted in criminal convictions. But these experiences tainted perceptions of governance in Maryland here and elsewhere.

Tellingly, at least one law firm actively promotes its thriving public corruption defense practice as a selling point to potential clients.

In January 2015, the influential fivethirtyeight.com blog ranked states from most to least corrupt. In terms of the number of federal corruption convictions, Maryland ranked a mediocre 19th overall and 21st on a per capita basis (50 being the best possible score a state can have).

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Around the same time, the Center for Public Integrity assessed the strength of Maryland's anti-public corruption laws as "D+."

On the same day corruption charges were announced against Mr. Oaks for the second time in his career, the Maryland General Assembly passed bipartisan legislation to toughen Maryland's ethic laws.

This is a good start, but more aggressive activity is needed in order to exorcise the ghost of Spiro Agnew once and for all. The state should:

• Establish a Public Corruption Czar position. Over the years, former U. S. Attorney Jervis Finney, who died last month, served as an informal adviser to the legislature and others on matters on public ethics. A perfect way to honor his memory would be to institutionalize his role in a high-level capacity, either in a cabinet level role or in a freestanding office.

•Implement a zero-tolerance policy. Public officials convicted of corruption should be permanently disqualified from climbing back aboard the same gravy train again. Or, if they are allowed to seek public office again, they should first be required to complete a rigorous if not prohibitory round of requirements.

•Expand and improve ethics trainings. This should be treated as a mandatory annual continuing education activity similar to that imposed by other professions.

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Fortunately, cracking down on corruption is also smart politics. It enables majority Democrats to burnish their image and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan — who ran on a message of change — to cite it as evidence he is cleaning out the Augean stables of Maryland's political establishment.

A new round of political corruption in Maryland is a perilous development for a state that prides itself on being a beacon of good government. But it raises opportunities as well. Recent developments could either signal the start of a new era, or just be a momentary fluke. The ultimate answer depends on our leaders.

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Richard J. Cross III is a former Capitol Hill and Annapolis press secretary and speechwriter. His e-mail address is rcrossiii@comcast.net.

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