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Delegate: Bill would strengthen Maryland’s ethics laws, hold officials accountable | COMMENTARY

Gov. Larry Hogan announced the Ethics and Accountability in Government Act the day before the General Assembly reconvened n Annapolis, but at least one state delegates say its Governor Hogan's ethics that need oversight.
Gov. Larry Hogan announced the Ethics and Accountability in Government Act the day before the General Assembly reconvened n Annapolis, but at least one state delegates say its Governor Hogan's ethics that need oversight. (Joshua McKerrow/Capital Gazette)

In January, Gov. Larry Hogan dubbed this legislative session the “Accountability Session.” I couldn’t have come up with a better theme myself. And that’s why I’ve introduced legislation to hold all state officials — including Governor Hogan — accountable by strengthening Maryland’s ethics laws to require more detailed financial disclosures from elected officials in both parties.

Since 2018, five legislators, all Democrats, have been convicted of corruption offenses. Last week, former Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh was sentenced to three years in jail for her “Healthy Holly” book scandal — only three years after winning an election against another former Baltimore mayor who stole gift cards intended for the city’s poorest residents. In response to these incidents, my colleagues in the General Assembly and I have unveiled a bold package of ethics laws designed to prevent future graft.

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In January, the Washington Monthly published a report that raised concerns that Governor Hogan steered taxpayer dollars to transportation projects that would increase the value of is real estate holdings — after he freed up hundreds of millions of transportation dollars by canceling the Red Line, a $2.9 billion plan to bring mass transit to Baltimore.

The most troubling revelation involved a new interchange that Governor Hogan approved — and allocated $58 million for — in southern Prince George’s County in January 2015. The project was right down the road from a property owned by HOGAN, the governor’s real estate brokerage firm, which he’s held onto while in office. Governor Hogan neither recused himself from this decision, nor disclosed this conflict to the General Assembly. Since the Washington Monthly report came out, the government watchdog group Public Citizen has filed an ethics complaint over the matter.

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There are other areas of concern. Governor Hogan didn’t enter into a trust agreement until almost a full year in office, and it was not approved by the State Ethics Commission until April 2016 — after two full General Assembly sessions in which the governor advanced transportation budgets. Still, the arrangement has glaring defects: The trustees are all current and former HOGAN company executives, his brother runs the firm, and the agreement allows him to be updated on the business’s investments and assets.

This has proven ineffective at preventing conflicts of interests. In Governor Hogan’s 2017 transportation budget, he allocated $23.5 million in road and crosswalk improvements in West Hyattsville, less than a mile from another one of his properties. Again, Governor Hogan did not recuse himself from the decision nor disclose his conflict to the legislature. Meanwhile, in his first three years as governor, Hogan made $2.4 million; his annual government salary is around $180,000. Equally disconcerting, the governor has never revealed the sources of payment on these undisclosed real estate deals.

Our state’s antiquated disclosure laws make it difficult to identify officials’ potential conflicts of interest or investigate sources of non-government income. On Governor Hogan’s annual disclosure forms, for instance, he has only included the LLCs in which he has ownership, not the actual properties they own.

My bill, the Conflicts of Interest Act, addresses those issues. First, it would require all elected officials to disclose information not only about companies they have a sizable ownership interest in, but also about the companies that those companies own.

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Second, the bill would require Maryland’s four full-time elected officials — the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller -- to disclose additional information about their sources of outside income. If full-time officials earn non-governmental income, Marylanders deserve to know who is paying them, and for what reason.

Finally, the Conflicts of Interest Act would impose much stronger rules for full-time officials who maintain private business interests while in office. Starting in January 2023, they would be required to either divest their assets or enter into a blind trust.

Maryland has a storied — and sordid — history of greased palms. But it has historically responded to corruption with course corrections. For example, in 1979, after back-to-back governors, including Spiro Agnew, became convicted felons, the General Assembly passed the landmark Public Ethics Law.

We should be similarly aggressive in addressing the latest bout of corruption and perceived conflicts of interests, no matter the political party of the culprit. Governor Hogan has claimed that “no one has ever been more transparent” than him, but too many questions remain. Taxpayers deserve answers. It’s time to pass a sensible ethics law that ensures elected officials are acting in Maryland’s interest rather than their own.

Democratic Del. Vaughn Stewart (Vaughn.Stewart@house.state.md.us) represents Montgomery County in the Maryland House of Delegates.

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