ANNAPOLIS – Maryland moved a step closer Tuesday to revamping its decades-old state ethics law.
A state commission recommended changes that would, among other things, forbid legislators from using their offices for personal gain, accepting meals from lobbyists and taking state or local government jobs while in office.
“I’m very pleased with this package,” said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat and the commission’s chairman. “It sets the framework for ethics in the General Assembly.”
The commission was created last spring, partly in response to ethics scandals involving two Baltimore Democrats. The legislature attempted – but failed – to pass tougher ethics rules during the last session.
In January, state Sen. Larry Young was expelled by the state Senate for conducting private business out of his district office. A month later, state Del. Gerald J. Curran resigned after being accused of using the power of his office to secure state contracts for his private insurance business.
The commission’s recommendations now go to House and Senate leaders, for possible introduction as a bill in 1999.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany Democrat, called the recommendation “a wonderful beginning.” He added, “I have every reason to believe that the proposal will become law.”
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. could not be reached.
The recommendations addressed other sticky areas. For example, the proposed law would forbid legislators from accepting tickets from lobbyists to sporting and cultural events. Legislators would be allowed to accept tickets from the sponsors of these events.
The measure also would prevent a senator or delegate from employing a relative for legislative business.
In addition, the bill would forbid members from directly soliciting gifts from lobbyists on another’s behalf. In the past, for example, lobbyists have complained that legislators pressure them into contributing to their favorite charities.
The legislation also calls for an ethics orientation program for new legislators to inform them of ethics rules and how not to violate them.
Thirteen members of the 15-person panel voted in favor of the proposed legislation; one abstained; another was absent. Most said they were pleased with the end result of their deliberations.
“It improves the law as it exists…. It’s stronger, clearer and more effective,” said Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat, commission member and co-chairman of the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics.
Collins predicted that while legislators might have some minor quibbles with the proposal, it will pass quickly during next year’s 90-day session.
Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Baltimore City Democrat and commission member, also said he expects the legislature to “look favorably upon it.” He said, “It balances a number of interests.”
But Deborah Povich, former executive director of Common Cause/Maryland and a panel member, called the proposal a compromise. “I think the recommendation by the commission is a significant improvement over what we had,” Povich said, “but it’s not perfect. Just better.”
Povich had wanted the commission to amend the proposal to allow members of the public to sit on panels investigating possible misconduct by legislators. The commission rejected that idea. Legislators don’t want the public to sit in judgment of them, except on election day, Povich said. -30-