ANNAPOLIS – It’s a tough assignment: slog through the politics, scandals and hit a tight deadline, but a new legislative panel is wading right into the tangle that is Maryland’s lobbying law.
The panel is an encore to last summer’s Study Commission on the Maryland Public Ethics Law, led by U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Baltimore. The new Study Commission on Lobbyist Ethics is set to retool the state’s outdated and confusing lobbying law and possibly develop a code of ethics for lobbyists in Maryland.
Former Delegate Donald B. Robertson, D-Montgomery, named chairman of the commission by the General Assembly leadership in August, said he intends to do “a lot of listening” to politicians, lobbyists, and the public.
What he may have to listen to is a lot of criticism of the way lobbying is currently regulated in the state – with a lot of red tape and little enforcement.
Lobbying reform is “far overdue in Annapolis,” said Paul Ellington, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party.
The commission is for show only and will not produce any real reform, Ellington said.
“I don’t think they’re really serious about lobbying reform at this point,” he said. “I think a lot of this point it’s paying lip service. It’s feel-good stuff. True reform is a long way off.”
Ellington has reason to grouse. The GOP has little real power in a state where the governor’s office, House of Delegates and Senate are controlled by Democrats, and those are the organizations that appointed the panel.
Kathleen Skullney, executive director of the campaign watchdog organization Common Cause Maryland, is more hopeful. She said the four lobbyists and four politicians on the so-called Robertson commission will balance each other and likely prohibit political agendas from dominating.
“This is Maryland – politics is always the 900-pound gorilla in the room,” Skullney said. Just because there’s an ape lurking in the corner doesn’t mean something bad will come out of the commission.
Skullney said it is not the law itself that is the problem in Maryland, it is the enforcement of that law that creates difficulties.
“I have to believe that the law that went on the books 20 years ago was a very good law and did not have in it the inconsistency and confusing aspects that more recent additions to the law have created,” Skullney said. “If we are able to achieve more meaningful enforcement for the lobbyists’ side of the transaction… then I think we also get serious enforcement or meaningful enforcement in other aspects of the law, including legislators. (That is) the key to all of it.”
Serious, balanced, fair reform is Robertson’s goal. He said at the panel’s first meeting Thursday that he intends to hear out the gripes of anyone willing to talk and to make a fair recommendation to the General Assembly by the end of the year.
Because the commission is getting a late start he will hold weekly meetings on Wednesdays at 4 p.m.
“I know that’s an intense schedule, but I don’t see how we’re going to get the work done in the time allotted unless we front-end load that way,” Robertson said.
Listening is the key, he said, and they’ll start their second meeting with a breakfast briefing on Sept. 22 by Cardin on what his commission accomplished and where Robertson’s needs to go. The group also will hear from Common Cause Maryland and the League of Women Voters in other meetings.
High-powered Annapolis lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano told reporters he’ll testify. Bereano, who is on home detention, was convicted of mail fraud in 1994 for sending $16,000 in bogus bills to his lobbying clients and then using the money to reimburse his family and friends who made campaign donations at his request. Bereano attended Thursday’s organizational meeting for about an hour and a half.
Skullney is also anxious to speak before the commission and said she has a “great deal of confidence” in Robertson. “In some ways, this may be the sort of quiet, technical task force that ends up with a really good product and maybe can do some remediation on the way,” Skullney said.
Robertson’s goals for the commission are idealistic, but he is confident they will be accomplished.
“The most important thing (for the commission to accomplish) would be to enhance the image of the Legislature in the eyes of the public,” said Robertson, who left after nearly 20 years in the General Assembly in 1989 to work full-time as an attorney in Washington.
The legislation that authorized the committee, he said, “said that the people of Maryland have a right to be sure that the practice of lobbying is carried out in a way that the interest of the public welfare (is not compromised and lobbying) does not subject our government to improper influence or create the appearance of improper influence.”
Robertson told the commission that the public’s interest is “something that we all ought to bear in mind.”
– 30 – CNS 9-10-99