Revolving door for government staffers questioned

Right now Rick Abbruzzese works at a desk a few feet from Gov. Martin O'Malley's office in the State House. In two weeks, he'll report a few blocks away to the Annapolis law firm Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan and Silver LLC, where he will likely lobby his soon-to-be former boss.

Ditto for Joseph C. Bryce, a State House staffer for nearly two decades and O'Malley's influential chief legislative officer for the past six years. Last month he announced his departure and has moved into a new office at Manis, Canning and Associates where he'll cajole, pressure and maneuver on behalf of corporate clients.

Elected officials in Maryland must wait up to one year as a "cooling off" period after leaving office before they can lobby their colleagues. Not so for paid staff who can jump from public sector jobs to the world of influence peddling with nary a weekend break — an inconsistency that some in the state believe should be remedied.

The Annapolis lobbying corps is thick with former staffers, who tend to be more successful than their lawmaker bosses in lobbying. Five of the state's top 10 best paid lobbyists are former staff members. Not one on the list is a former lawmaker.

A staff job has become "an internship for professional lobbyists" said former Sen. Julian Lapides, a member of the State Ethics Commission who was once called "the conscience of the Maryland state Senate."

"It is tough to turn down a friend," said Lapides, a Democrat who represented Baltimore. "Especially when you have an issue that is a coin toss, or one that you are not particularly interested in. I'm not asking for a total divorce. … I think just a little separation period would be good."

He, and other current and former lawmakers, said the quick change-over from public servant to influence peddler can create an appearance of coziness and impropriety that contributes to low public opinion of government. The image is of powerful staffers who learn the system on the taxpayer dime and then cash in on those experiences on behalf of corporate interests.

About a dozen other states — including Virginia — require that staff as well as lawmakers take time off between jobs. For the past decade, the Maryland Ethics Commission, a group that oversees lobbying, has recommended in its annual report that legislative staff adhere to the same rules as their bosses. And the House GOP leader has repeatedly introduced legislation that would impose a similar requirement for executive branch staff.

Abbruzzese and Bryce declined to comment, though Elizabeth F. Harris, general counsel to O'Malley, said they both consulted with ethics attorneys about their new roles.

The state's post-employment rules were established in 1995 after a year in which five lawmakers left office and almost immediately joined lobbying firms. The rules now require that they wait until the next legislative session until they can begin lobbying — a period of a few months to a year, depending on when they leave the General Assembly.

There's one loophole: Former lawmakers can immediately lobby on behalf of local and county entities.

Some restrictions apply to all government employees. A staffer at the Department of Transportation, for example, can't ever work in the private sector on a highway contract for which he developed specifications.

But legislative and executive branch staffers can work on legislative issues they have handled in the past — as long as it's in a new General Assembly session.

Abbruzzese and Bryce, as they were mulling their departures, avoided discussions about matters that might be on the governor's agenda in the next legislative session that begins in January, Harris said.

"The governor's office takes seriously compliance with the ethics rules, and we did so with both Rick and Joe," Harris said.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman to O'Malley, said the governor is "always open to ideas that would strengthen public confidence in government" and would "look at" any proposal.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said the General Assembly might revisit the rules. A law to require executive branch staff to cool their heels for one year before lobbying passed unanimously in his chamber in 2011.

"I think that would be interesting to look at," he said.

Last year Busch lost his chief of staff John Favazza — a gambling expert — to the Manis Canning lobbying firm. Weeks after he joined the firm, it signed a gambling conglomerate led by Caesars Entertainment, and Favazza was soon lobbying his former boss on a gambling expansion measure.

"The image to the public is they leave one side of the table, and then they are on the other side of the table where they can get access nobody else can get," said D. Bruce Poole, a former Western Maryland delegate. "Access isn't everything, but it is a huge part of success in Annapolis."

The state's upper chamber has so far rejected the notion of adding a waiting period for staffers. "It is an idea that is utopian," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, said in an interview. "It could do more harm for a young person's career," he added.

He said thousands of paid staffers in the State House complex "serve in so many different capacities."

"This puts a road block in the way of young people going to look for other opportunities," said Miller, who prides himself on the success of the many staffers who have worked in his office. A raft of them have gone on to become Annapolis' top lobbyists, including Tim Perry and Gerry Evans, both of whom reported compensation of more than $1 million in 2011.

The most recent was Caitlin E. McDonough, a former legislative director to Miller who started with the lobbying firm Harris Jones & Malone just before the August special session on expanded gambling, a measure that passed and has been ratified by voters. (A founding partner in that firm is Sean R. Malone, another veteran of O'Malley's legislative shop.)

Miller also noted that staff members, who work year-round, don't typically have other professions they would be able to turn to during a "wait out" period. Lawmakers in state's part-time General Assembly typically hold outside jobs.

"We have other vocations," Miller said. "When they [staff] lose that job, they have no other job to move on to."

Another defender of the status quo is former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., now a stalwart on the Annapolis lobbying scene. The Western Maryland Democrat said that staff — no matter how powerful — simply do not develop the same bonds that lawmakers form among one another.

"The longer the legislator is there, the assumption is, the more clout or respect that legislator has among his colleagues," Taylor said. "I don't know that they have that amount of feeling for an outside staff member."

The issue is sure to be on the table in January — House GOP leader Del. Anthony O'Donnell said he will reintroduce legislation to extend the "cooling off" period to executive branch staff.

"There should be a reasonable period where you are not involved policy making," O'Donnell said. "A top level insider can go to a special interest lobby firm. People are skeptical enough of government. This kind of activity exacerbates it."

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