ANNAPOLIS – A bill that would make it illegal to lie to members of the General Assembly has cleared a hurdle in its yearly, ill-fated track.
“We should have some deterrent against false background information,” said Leo E. Green, D-Prince George’s and vice chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Green has sponsored the measure for seven straight years, and his committee unanimously recommended passage on Friday. The full Senate is all but certain to send the bill to the House, where it faces tough scrutiny in the Judiciary Committee.
Green’s bill is modeled after the law that nearly brought former Col. Oliver North jail time for deceiving the U.S. Congress. It would make it a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 or five years in prison or both to “knowingly and willingly” mislead or deceive a lawmaker.
But Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., D-Prince George’s, said the threat of prosecution could have a “chilling effect” on citizens who want to express their opinions, but who are not experts on an issue.
Fellow House Judiciary member Dana Dembrow, D-Montgomery, agreed. Such a law, he said, “would do severe damage to the public’s right to participate” in policy making.
Montague and Dembrow, who have previously voted to kill the bill, also said that the law could lead to politically motivated prosecutions.
But supporters disagreed.
“The force of the law would keep people more careful and honest,” said Sen. Larry E. Haines, R-Carroll. “If a person is competent to stand trial, they are competent to testify honestly before a committee. [People] should have their facts straight, and that’s the intent of this bill.”
Dembrow said that blatant misuse of hard facts “is extremely rare.”
But in his testimony, Green cited a report concluding that false statements knowingly made to lawmakers aggravated Maryland’s $500 million share of the savings and loan crisis during the mid-1980’s.
Montague countered that the S&L problem could have been better handled with more effort.
“It’s the job of the legislators to find out what the truth is,” he said.
Supporters give two reasons for hope that the bill will finally become law. The bill is tailored this year to tape- recorded testimony only.
Green said that since House committees don’t generally record hearings, it shouldn’t affect them. “If they want to have senatorial courtesy, they should pass [this],” he said.
Also working in Green’s favor is a House Judiciary Committee with 13 newcomers among its 22 members. As Dembrow put it, “All issues are up for grabs.” -30-