ANNAPOLIS – A legislative committee is revising a host of opinions on ethics in time for lawmakers to use them as guidelines for the upcoming session.
The Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics is condensing and adapting about 65 advisory opinions intended to clarify the Maryland Public Ethics Law into nine new opinions to deal with the new ethics law, which went into effect Oct. 1. The opinions cover topics such as employment by other government entities, use of the prestige of office, doing business with state or local government, gifts and conflicts of interest.
These opinions are meant to interpret the law for members of the General Assembly, said the committee’s House chairman, Delegate Kenneth C. Montague Jr., D-Baltimore. Because of the 1999 law, some of the previously existing opinions have become “obsolete,” he said.
Because the law does not cover every issue that may come up for a legislator, the committee must work through the small details, Montague said.
Statutes are unable to cover every circumstance that a legislator may encounter, he said. “There are some nuances that we have to deal with.”
The committee will be working right up until the session starts in January to “weed out advisory opinions that don’t apply and updating those that do apply but need further clarification,” Montague said.
The committee, not the State Ethics Commission, has jurisdiction over most violations, Montague said.
The commission, however, shares jurisdiction with the Joint Ethics Committee in matters involving legislators’ annual financial disclosures and gifts from lobbyists, said John O’Donnell, executive director of the commission.
When the two bodies disagree, the committee’s opinion prevails for Assembly members, he said, and opinions from one body can influence decisions made by the other.
Both panels’ decisions have the force of law, Montague said, and “once they’re issued, the member has to abide by them.”
The difficult issue of dealing with lobbyists will occupy the committee’s next meeting Dec. 15. The General Assembly’s Study Commission on Lobbyist Ethics, whose chairman is former Delegate Donald B. Robertson, D-Montgomery, is also looking into the relationship between lobbyists and legislators.
Discrepancies between the Robertson’s panel’s findings and committee opinions will be dealt with during the 2001 session, as the panel is not scheduled to issue a final report until September.
The Joint Committee is considering guidelines that would require lawmakers to file a disclaimer to make the committee aware of any possible conflicts of interest.
Lawmakers should be cautious when interacting with lobbyists, according to one of the committee’s draft opinions. The opinion says such a relationship “has always attracted close scrutiny” because of the large amounts of money involved in the lobbying process and the influence that some lobbyists have on the legislative process.
The disclaimer of conflict also must be filed, the opinion says, if a lawmaker’s company employs a lobbyist, if the legislator has immediate family members who have business interactions with lobbyists or the lawmaker is married to a lobbyist.