By Ana Alaya and Russell Arrington
ANNAPOLIS – State lawmakers received $43,000 worth of trips from special-interest groups in 1993, state records show.
Reports filed by legislators at the State Ethics Commission showed that 26 of the 188 legislators traveled at others’ expense in 1993, taking a total of 31 domestic and overseas trips.
That’s 11 fewer trips than the 42 reported in 1992, but their total value was $8,000 more, according to a computer analysis of the records by Capital News Service. Reports for 1994 are due in June.
Lawmakers are required to report all gifts over $25 to the ethics commission if the gifts are received from groups that do business with the state, are regulated by the state or lobby state government.
Critics say such trips, funded by special-interest groups, can cause conflicts of interests.
“There is a public concern that lobbyists get unfair access to legislators when they pay for a trip,” said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.
“They have the legislator’s ear for the entire trip. Obviously the lobbying organization believes there is an advantage or they wouldn’t pay for the trip,” she said.
Povich applauded action the Legislature took this year to require lawmakers to notify the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics before going on lobbyist-sponsored trips that cost more than $500.
The Ethics Commission records show that seven lawmakers traveled outside the United States in 1993, six of them to Israel: Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore; Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s; then-Del. Gerry L. Brewster, D-Baltimore County; then-Sen. Laurence Levitan, D- Montgomery; then-Del. Gary R. Alexander, D-Prince George’s; and Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, D-Baltimore County.
Trips to Israel, ranging in value from $2,000 to $4,500, are sponsored every year by three interrelated groups – the Baltimore Jewish Council, the Jewish Council of Greater Washington and the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
Darrell Friedman, president of the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, which sponsored most of the 1993 Israeli trips, said the purpose is “to educate Americans and help them understand the strategic importance of Israel.”
The federation takes individuals within the community who they feel are key decision makers, such as elected officials, educators and business leaders, he said. They participate in panel discussions and various briefings.
But Levitan said when he went there were no duties for him.
“You just travel, you meet with people, you talk to people,” he said. “You basically learn about the country. It’s just … a good promotional thing for Israel.”
Bromwell, who went to Israel in 1992 and 1993, said the trips help Christian politicians understand issues of concern to the Jewish community.
Del. Marsha G. Perry, D-Anne Arundel, went to the Republic of Malta courtesy of the U.S. State Department. While there, she told officials of Mediterranean countries how the Chesapeake Bay states cooperated to solve the problem of bay pollution.
“While we are not different countries,” Perry said, “we have many different states that did and do contribute to the problems of the Chesapeake Bay. [Malta is] an island where they can’t eat the fish. They have a body of water that’s not doing anything for them.”
Del. Nancy K. Kopp, D-Montgomery, went on six trips, the most reported for any one legislator in 1993, according to the records.
Four were to different states to attend meetings of the Southern Regional Education Board, an organization of 13 southeastern states composed of legislative members, governors, educators and others. The board is funded by grants and by member states.
Kopp, who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on education, has been a member of the board for 10 years.
“A lot of the ideas and work we do come from the SREB,” Kopp said.
She said the group is not a private organization that does business with the state, and therefore she did not have to report it, but added, “I always felt better to have it listed, so people know what their legislators have been doing.”
Records also showed:
– The value of 1993 trips by lawmakers from Baltimore and Baltimore County was 44 percent of the total paid for by groups.
– About half of what groups spent on delegates’ travel in 1993 went to members of the Economic Matters Committee.
– Between 1992 and 1993, members of the Senate Finance Committee received the most travel money ($15,544) from interest groups, followed closely by members of Economic Matters ($14,536).
Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., D-Baltimore, chairman of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, said there are still gray areas in reporting procedures regarding trips sponsored by government associations.
Last year, Montague reported a trip to Germany one year late. He said his failure to report was an oversight, and disputed whether the sponsors – groups of American and German state legislators – had a connection with the state.
“There are still a lot of things we need to deal with in terms of reporting,” Montague said.
Some trip sponsors are not easily identifiable as regulated lobbyists or entities “doing business with the state.” Associations like the Southern Regional Education Board or the American Bar Association aren’t always reported and don’t have to be, Montague said.