By Sue Fernandez, Stephanie Barrett and James Franklin
ANNAPOLIS – State lawmakers are not fully disclosing all the gifts they receive from lobbyists, interest groups and others, according to a Capital News Service computer analysis of ethics forms.
Almost half of the 118 legislators whose 1994 financial disclosure forms were examined left the “gifts” section of the form completely blank.
Meanwhile, among the 64 who reported receiving one or more gifts:
-42 percent did not report the organization that gave them a gift.
-70 percent did not report the name of the person who gave them a gift.
-48 percent did not report the value of a gift.
Capital News Service looked at the most recent forms turned in to the State Ethics Commission — due April 30, 1995 for gifts received in 1994. The analysis disregarded the forms of 70 legislators who were elected in 1994, but did not take office until 1995.
Deborah Povich, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause of Maryland, said legislators should fully disclose gifts to ensure public trust.
“It gives the public the tools necessary to see who was exerting influence on the government, and it allows the public to hold officials accountable,” she said.
Lawmakers attribute their inconsistencies in filling out the forms to confusion.
“I don’t think people are knowingly evading the law,” Sen. Barbara Hoffman, D-Baltimore, said. “The ethics law is not written in English.”
Del. Henry Heller, D-Montgomery, concurred. “It’s horrendous,” he said.
But John O’Donnell, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, said legislators have had to disclose the same gifts for more than 20 years.
Language regarding gifts has been in the law books since 1973, and has not been changed since 1979. A gift is defined as “the transfer of anything of economic value, regardless of form.” In other words, it can be anything, including invitations to dinners, receptions, and sporting and special events.
Once a year, elected officials must file a disclosure form that includes gifts received from lobbyists or anyone doing business with the state.
Legislators must list every gift with a value of more than $25 and any series of gifts with a cumulative value of $100 or more.
Finally, when disclosing the gift, the legislator has to include “the nature and value of the gift; and the identity from which…the gift was received.”
But legislators interpret the ethics law differently.
Of the 118 forms analyzed, a few were extremely detailed. Del. Pauline H. Menes, D-Prince George’s, attached a list of 32 receptions or meals she had attended. Sen. Jean W. Roesser, R- Montgomery, and Del. Carol Petzold, D-Montgomery, also listed almost every reception and dinner, including dates and places.
“I guess I’m just very thorough,” said Roesser, who was a delegate in the 1994 General Assembly. She said she may have actually over reported, by including dinners that probably cost less than $25.
“It’s the way I approach things,” she said. “I play it on the safe side.”
But a majority of lawmakers left their forms blank or vaguely listed only a few gifts without telling who they were from.
Del. Michael Weir, D-Baltimore County, listed receiving “tickets”, but not what kind, their worth or the giver.
Weir said he thought he didn’t have to report the dollar amount, even though the disclosure form specifically states that legislators should list the “nature and value” of gifts.
“The way I did it had to be legally sufficient,” Weir said.
Other legislators gave few or no details about events they had attended.
Drug manufactuer Eli Lilly and Company treated eight lawmakers to dinner during the 1994 National Conference of State Legislators convention in New Orleans. A company lobbyist listed the names of the legislators in a letter to the State Ethics Commission, but not every attendee fully reported the meal.
Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard, D-Prince George’s, disclosed that she received two meals from an Eli Lilly lobbyist, but did not specify a dinner in New Orleans.
Heller did not report the meal at all. The lobbyist listed him as attending with his wife and son at a cost of $151.26.
Heller said he paid for his son and did not report his meal because “there were three or four lobbyists who said they were going to split the bill, and that it wouldn’t be reported.”
After a lobbyist publicly discloses giving a legislator a gift, the legislator receives a letter from the ethics commission to let them know it’s something they need to disclose.
But while Lilly later did report the New Orleans meal, Heller said he never received a copy of the letter. Heller said he would attach an addendum to his 1994 disclosure form.
But he added that he is still confused about what to disclose. He said it can be hard to estimate if meals or receptions cost over $25.
Heller said he goes to as many as six or seven receptions a night during the session, but he does not eat or drink a lot while there. “I have a Diet Coke, that’s it,” he said. “I never drink [alcohol] because I’m a diabetic.”
Disclosure forms are monitored by the Towson-based ethics commission, led by O’Donnell with the oversight of a five-member board appointed by the governor.
The commission’s staff collects the disclosure forms and checks each legislator’s form at least once each four-year term to make sure it is filled out completely, O’Donnell said.
But O’Donnell said the commission doesn’t have a foolproof way of making sure legislators are disclosing every gift.
Legislators’ disclosures can’t always be directly cross- checked with what lobbyists report giving, because lobbyists’ disclosure laws are different.
In 1994, lobbyists had to report gifts over $75, way over the legislator’s $25 threshold.
This year the law has changed. Lobbyists now must report gifts over $15, which is under the threshold.
“It’s not like keeping score in a ballgame,” O’Donnell said. “It’s hard to match things.”
O’Donnell said the new lobbyist laws should help legislators keep better track of the gifts they receive. Since more individual gifts will be listed by the lobbyists, the ethics commission will notify lawmakers of more individual gifts.
O’Donnell said the commission will never be able to make sure legislators are reporting 100 percent of what they receive.
Even so, he said it was in a legislator’s best interest to report all gifts, especially for legal reasons. If someone accused a legislator of receiving a gift that he or she didn’t report, the legislator could be charged with perjury, he said. Not reporting a gift is “like telling IRS I didn’t make any money,” O’Donnell said. “It’s a dangerous game to play.” -30-