ANNAPOLIS – Maryland legislative leaders are predicting quick passage of a proposed bill requiring online reporting of lobbyists’ expenditures and stricter restrictions on their activities in the State House.
The Study Commission on Lobbyist Ethics, formed by the Legislature in 1999 to address public concerns of improper political activity in Annapolis, finalized its report and draft bill last week.
The bill would bring about what the commission calls the most extensive changes to state ethics laws since some lobbyists were first required to register in 1979.
The bill could be one of the first passed during the 2001 General Assembly session, said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr, D-Prince George’s. Miller said he will pre-file the bill and it will be introduced in both chambers Jan. 10.
The Study Commission deliberated at the same time as a federal court mulled charges that Delegate Tony E. Fulton, D-Baltimore, and lobbyist Gerard E. Evans conspired to defraud Evans’ clients.
The new bill would give the State Ethics Commission increased authority over lobbyists, with the power to fine those who violate ethics laws and to suspend or revoke their registrations.
Under the proposed new reporting requirements, lobbyists would have to report in advance dinners and receptions held for legislative groups, with lists printed weekly that note the date, location and legislative group invited.
Two weeks after events, lobbyists would be required to report the total cost of the event and the identities of any sponsors.
The information would be available on the Internet. Currently, disclosure reports are filed at the State Ethics Commission office in Towson.
The report also lists 12 new prohibitions against lobbyist activities, including a ban on unregistered lobbyists doing business in the Legislature, lobbyists soliciting or transmitting charitable contributions for a legislator and lobbyists giving legislators personal loans.
Some critics have suggested the law should reform the Committee on Legislative Ethics, a self-regulating body of legislators, but plans to do so were rejected, said Delegate John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore, who introduced them. The Study Commission determined such a move would exceed the limits of its purpose, which is to study lobbyists, not legislators.
The Committee on Legislative Ethics’ inaction on the Fulton case is often cited by critics bent on reform. The panel declined to reprimand Fulton over his dealings with Evans. Soon after that decision, the federal judge in the Evans-Fulton case said a “culture of corruption” existed in Annapolis.
Fulton was acquitted on five charges and the jury deadlocked on another six. Evans was convicted on nine counts of federal mail fraud and sentenced to 2 and a half years in jail. Under current law, Evans could still lobby in the State House after serving his jail term. Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, a Study Commission member, said self- regulation of lawmaker ethics should be the subject of another special commission. Sen. Richard F. Colburn, R-Dorchester, favors the reforms, but echoed concerns by many that ethics is difficult to legislate.
“You can’t legislate honesty,” Colburn said.
A provision pushed by Chairman Donald Robertson and Frosh to ban all contributions by lobbyists to political campaigns failed. Opponents argued it would violate lobbyists’ free speech rights.
But Frosh is satisfied that the recommendations are a good start. “We’re setting up a regulatory regime,” he said, “pursuant to which if a lobbyist violates the law, it’s not just a fine anymore.”