ANNAPOLIS – The aftermath of ethics violations in the Maryland General Assembly continued as a new law tightening lobbyist reporting requirements went into effect this week and a panel prepared recommendations for even more restrictions.
The new law, effective Oct. 1, requires lobbyists to report business transactions with legislators exceeding $1,000, as well as any series of transactions amounting to $5,000 or more.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, co- sponsored the original bill in response to allegations of an improper real estate deal between lobbyist Gerard E. Evans and Delegate Tony E. Fulton, D-Baltimore, in 1998.
Evans was recently sentenced to 2 1/2 years in jail and fined $50,000 on nine counts of federal mail fraud. Fulton was acquitted on some counts and the jury deadlocked on others. Prosecutors opted against a retrial.
Registered lobbyists already file disclosure reports and supporting documents every six months detailing their dealings with lawmakers and state executives. Now they will have to file an additional form whenever a business transaction such as a property deal occurs.
The next disclosure deadline is Nov. 30.
John O’Donnell, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, said it is hard to say how frequent such deals are.
“Based on the testimony on the bills, I would say that it certainly happens,” he said. “Nobody knows how commonplace it is, but there were numerous examples given where it has occurred in the past.”
The General Assembly killed a companion bill that would have banned such deals, favoring instead new reporting requirements.
But O’Donnell said the law could have the same effect as an outright ban.
“Disclosure bills have a preventive effect,” he said, “which is, a lot of times people will cease to take gifts if they have to be disclosed.”
Legislators are required to report gifts and business transactions, but in a different manner than lobbyists. They do not have to report with whom they conduct business, just the amount of the transaction. The new law does not apply to businesses represented by lobbyists or their law firms.
Meanwhile, the Study Commission on Lobbyist Ethics, a committee formed in the wake of the Evans-Fulton case, is considering other possible reporting requirements and restrictions on lobbyist activity.
A new ethics bill proposal from the commission will be presented to General Assembly staff in two weeks. The recommendations will call for 15 new prohibitions against lobbyist activity, including a practice known as “bell-ringing,” for which Evans was convicted.
Bell-ringing involves proposing a bill solely to pump up fees from clients who fear its effects.
The study commission’s recommendations also will call for more extensive reporting of special events for legislators. The panel will require disclosure of the sponsor, location and the cost of an event, as well as a list of events in an upcoming week.
The report is being drafted now, said study commission Chairman Donald Robertson, D-Montgomery. The document will be released at the study commission’s last meeting Oct 18.
Miller said he will introduce a bill next session incorporating the study group’s findings.
“We hope to adopt (the commission’s) recommendations concerning the licensing of lobbyists and sanctions when they transgress.”