The General Assembly ethics committee that's investigating Del. Dan K. Morhaim's work with a medical cannabis company has hired a lawyer to assist with the review.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who on Friday disclosed the hiring of the special counsel, said the action underscores the serious nature of the investigation.
"It's very, very unusual," Miller said. "It means we take the case very seriously."
Morhaim's attorney disputed that, saying he was specifically told that the hiring of an outside counsel did not mean the investigation was being given greater scrutiny than others.
"We were told repeatedly this is no reflection of the seriousness or lack of seriousness, or lack of gravity or gravity of the situation," said Timothy F. Maloney, a Greenbelt-based attorney who is representing the Baltimore County Democrat.
Maloney said he was told the special counsel was needed because the ethics committee's staff had a potential conflict of interest: They advised Morhaim on how to handle his relationship with Doctor's Orders, a company that applied for, and won, preliminary licenses to grow and distribute medical cannabis.
Maloney said the special counsel has been working on Morhaim's case for a couple of months. He suggested that Miller mentioned the special counsel as an "overreaction" to Gov. Larry Hogan's announcement on Thursday of a series of bills to overhaul government ethics and transparency laws.
Hogan's proposals include giving the state Ethics Commission jurisdiction over ethical concerns involving lawmakers. Currently, legislators police themselves following the recommendations of a joint committee of delegates and senators. Twelve lawmakers representing both parties sit on the ethics committee.
The General Assembly ethics committee operates confidentially. The committee's chairmen, Del. Adrienne Jones of Baltimore County and Sen. Ed DeGrange Sr. of Anne Arundel County, both Democrats, did not respond to requests for comment.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch declined to comment. The Anne Arundel Democrat cited confidentiality rules that govern the ethics committee.
The last time the legislative ethics committee hired a lawyer to assist in an investigation was in the case of former Sen. Larry Young, Miller said.
Young, a Baltimore Democrat, was expelled from the Maryland Senate by his colleagues in 1998 for a series of ethics violations, including a legislative finding that he used his office to benefit his private business. He was accused of running corporations out of his district office. Some of those companies were paid money by health care companies that had dealings with the state.
Young was later acquitted of extortion and bribery charges and now works as a radio talk show host.
Other lawmakers have also been disciplined following ethics committee investigations in recent years.
In 2013, Del. Tony McConkey, an Anne Arundel Republican, was reprimanded for seeking to amend legislation to make it easier for him to get his real estate license reinstated. In 2012, Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat, was censured for advancing legislation to help Shoppers Food Warehouse, which employed him as a consultant. Both men continue to serve in the General Assembly.
The ethics committee's special counsel has not been named publicly. Miller said it is a former prosecutor who is a "high-visibility person."
It's not clear if the special counsel is paid, what the scope of his or her work entails or when the ethics committee plans to finish its investigation.
Maloney said Morhaim is eager for the investigation to conclude and believes his client's name will be cleared.
"His disclosures are fully compliant with the law," Maloney said.
The ethics committee opened an investigation into Morhaim last year according to people with knowledge of the inquiry.
Morhaim, who is a doctor, has been a leading proponent of legalizing medical marijuana, also known as medical cannabis, for Marylanders with certain chronic conditions.
As he sponsored legislation to create the industry and advocated for the rules to govern the industry, he was also a paid consultant for Doctor's Orders.
Morhaim has maintained that he properly disclosed his intent to work as a consultant in the emerging cannabis industry. He has also said he regretted not being more transparent about his relationship with the company.
Maloney said Morhaim's advocacy affected the entire cannabis industry, not Doctor's Orders specifically. In some cases, Morhaim suggested policies that Doctor's Orders would disagree with, such as allowing unlimited licenses or not allowing licenses to be sold, Maloney said.
Maloney, who represented Prince George's County in the House of Delegates from 1979 to 1994, suggested his client is being used to make it look like lawmakers care about ethics.
"Every once in a while, Annapolis looks to burn someone at the stake," he said.