ANNAPOLIS – Lawmakers Thursday debated whether the issue of tightening lawmaker-lobbyist business relationships in Maryland should be dealt with this session or after a task force makes its recommendations later this year.
The Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee heard two ethics proposals: one to prohibit business transactions between legislators and lobbyists; the other to require such relationships be disclosed.
Both bills, sponsored by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., were introduced after Delegate Tony Fulton, D-Baltimore, and lobbyist Gerard Evans were indicted in December for an elaborate mail and wire fraud scheme.
“(The bills are) very important in terms of how the public continues to view the Maryland General Assembly,” Miller, D-Prince George’s, told the committee.
The disclosure measure would require lobbyists to report business transactions worth $1,000 or a series of transactions worth $5,000 or more with legislators – adding to an already long list of State Ethics Commission reporting requirements.
The other measure would ban business transactions of $500 or more between legislators and lobbyists.
Maryland Common Cause, a public watchdog, supports both bills but said the outright ban needs some work.
“The problem with the prohibition (bill) right now is it covers too many transactions and too few people,” said Executive Director Kathleen Skullney.
The dollar limit should be raised and the executive branch should be included, she said. And, she said, the ban should not just cover lobbyists, but the interests they are representing.
For example, while lobbyists may not be able to do business with a lawmaker, the companies they represent could. Yet she couldn’t offer the committee solutions for such situations.
It is exactly this kind of logistical problem that prompted Sen. Michael Collins, D-Baltimore County, to ask for a delay until recommendations are made by the lobbyist ethics task force, of which he is a member. The intricate issue would be better dealt with after session by the task force.
“That commission … will do a much better job over several weeks or months in the interim then we could in the next couple of weeks for 20 minutes there and a half hour here,” said Collins, who also is chairman of the ethics subcommittee of the Economic and Environmental Affairs committee.
The task force, headed by former Delegate Donald Robertson, D-Montgomery, is made up of citizens, ethic commission representatives and lobbyists. The group plans to make its recommendations in September.
Legislative leaders originally planned to wait for the task force’s recommendations before drafting any ethics legislation. But after the indictments, the measures moved forward.
The men are charged with 11 counts of mail and wire fraud in what the grand jury said was a scheme to defraud Evans’s lobbying clients. Fulton, who is a real estate agent, was also paid $10,125 for finding Evans’ lobbying firm a new Annapolis office.
Regardless of why the legislation was drafted this session, Skullney said it could be passed without the task force’s input.
“I don’t so readily discount the ability of the legislative body and legislative committee to work through a complicated issue,” she said.
The problem with ethics legislation, said John O’Donnell, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, is the laws have to be broad because “there’s no way to narrow it down to catch exactly what you want.”