Regents condemn Mandel lobbying

Former Gov. Marvin Mandel violated the University System of Maryland Board of Regents' ethics policy by lobbying the legislature during the past three years, the board ruled yesterday.

The Sun reported in March that Mandel, who was appointed to the Board of Regents by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2003, was at the center of liquor wholesalers' efforts this year to stop legislation allowing small wineries to sell directly to restaurants and retailers. State records also show that he lobbied on behalf of the insurance industry in 2003 and 2004.The board's finding that Mandel violated a ban on lobbying by its members carries no penalty. But his actions are still subject to inquiry by the State Ethics Commission, which potentially could lead to jail time and fines.

The Ethics Commission does not disclose the subjects of its investigations, but legislators have said they have been interviewed by commission staff about Mandel.

In a statement, Mandel acknowledged that he had violated the rule, adopted in accordance with a law passed by the General Assembly in 1999. He said the violation was the result of an incomplete understanding of board ethics policies, and he promised to avoid further violations.

"I respect and cherish my membership on the board and I deeply regret that my actions may have cast an undeserving negative light on the valuable work that my colleagues and I perform on behalf of our students and our state," Mandel said in a statement. "We all understand that we, as regents, must conduct ourselves beyond reproach. Now that I am more fully informed of the policy, I will be more sensitive to its requirements as I continue my work as a regent."

He did not return a telephone call for comment yesterday.

The board's ruling comes a month after it decided that Chairman David H. Nevins had not violated the same ethics rule in attending meetings between top legislative leaders and his employers at Constellation Energy, BGE's parent company. Nevins is Constellation's chief marketing officer.

Although the meetings involved discussions of matters before the General Assembly, Nevins said he did not participate in the talks and attended simply to provide introductions.

Mandel testified against the wineries bill in a Senate committee hearing, met with and wrote to key legislators and represented his clients' interests in a task force meeting of legislators, winemakers and others.

In the previous two years, he was a registered lobbyist for the insurance industry. He has been a registered lobbyist for the Licensed Beverage Distributors of Maryland in the past but was not this year.

Questions about the activities of Nevins and Mandel led to heightened scrutiny of ethics issues for the regents during the General Assembly session and the passage of a law limiting their political activity.

That law resulted in this week's resignation of Regent Richard E. "Dick" Hug, Ehrlich's top fundraiser. James C. Rosapepe, a regent who is running for state Senate, also announced that this week's meeting would be his last. His term was about to expire.

The regents concluded in their opinion that Mandel did not intentionally or willfully violate the ethics rules. The opinion also states that the former governor did not use his position on the board to his clients' advantage.

Mandel told investigators that he was not briefed on the lobbying ban when he was appointed to the board, although he acknowledged that he knew about it before he testified in the Senate hearing.

According to the regents' opinion, Mandel told investigators that he did not believe the policy applied to his advocacy for the liquor wholesalers because they had been a client before he was appointed to the board.

The regents' ethics policy says: "A member of the Board of Regents shall not, for compensation, assist or represent any party in any matter before the General Assembly."

It was enacted after a lobbying scandal involving then-Regents Chairman Lance W. Billingsley, who traded on his relationship with Gov. Parris N. Glendening to establish a lobbying practice.

Michael Gill, who chairs the regents committee that investigated Nevins and Mandel, said it was "unfortunate" that the former governor was found in violation of the policy. But he said the experience was valuable in that it has spurred the board to revamp its ethics training for members. He said the board will also develop more detailed guidelines about what constitutes lobbying.

"The most important thing ... is going forward, everybody knows the policy and there will be no `I didn't know the policy' in the future," Gill said.

Mandel, 86, became governor in 1969 after Spiro T. Agnew was elected vice president. Mandel was then elected to two terms but temporarily stepped down as governor in 1977 amid charges of mail fraud and racketeering that resulted in his conviction in federal court.

He eventually served 19 months of a three-year prison term until his sentence was commuted by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. His conviction was overturned in 1988 on procedural grounds, though none of the facts of the case against him was ever refuted.

In 2002, he re-entered the public arena as an adviser and ally of Ehrlich. This week, the current governor debuted a tourism commercial in which Mandel plays a cameo role.

Nevins said citizens should have confidence that the board is conducting its business with integrity and following its own rules.

"He has said it was inadvertent. We believe him. He has said that it won't happen again. We believe him," Nevins said. "I think it is now hopefully time to move on, and the board has a lot of important business to handle."

However, both Nevins and Mandel could still be subject to action by the Ethics Commission.

State law requires lobbyist registration from anyone who "for the purpose of influencing any legislative action" communicates "with an official or employee of the Legislative Branch or Executive Branch in the presence of that official or employee."

On March 2, Mandel wrote a letter on his law firm stationery to Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, the Southern Maryland Democrat who was the sponsor of the wineries legislation, in which he identified himself as writing "on behalf of the wholesalers' association (Licensed Beverage Distributors of Maryland) and its members."

In the letter, Mandel took positions on the distributors' behalf about the bill.

Anyone who "knowingly and willfully" violates state lobbying law can be found guilty of a misdemeanor, jailed for up to a year and fined $10,000.


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