ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland General Assembly has been rocked by recent ethical scandals, but that hasn’t made lawmakers more likely to disclose the kinds of conflicts of interest that have gotten their colleagues in trouble.
A Capital News Service investigation has found some legislators haven’t disclosed anything in years, if ever, and that some disclosures are so vague that it is unclear what a member is revealing – a situation that prompted one top lawmaker to say the law requiring conflicts of interest to be disclosed may need review.
CNS reviewed the public ethics files of all 188 members immediately following the end of the legislative session in April, which saw the passage of 901 bills from among more than 2,300 introduced. The inspection focused on the disclosure of any real or presumed conflicts between legislators’ duties and outside interests.
Only 32 lawmakers filed a conflict-of-interest statements before the end of the 2000 session and about the same number, 33, had never filed any kind of ethical disclosure during their time in office, the CNS review showed. The remaining 123 legislators filed some kind of disclosure during their tenure, and most had filed a conflict-of-interest statement.
This coming session, legislative ethics laws are expected to tighten. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, has vowed to make more stringent lawmaker/lobbyist disclosure requirements one of the first bills introduced in 2001.
Miller will act on a proposal by the Study Commission on Lobbyist Ethics, formed last year after the indictments of Delegate Tony Fulton, D-Baltimore, and lobbyist Gerard E. Evans, for working together to defraud Evans’ clients. Evans was convicted and sentenced to 2 and a half years in jail, while Fulton was acquitted on some counts and the jury deadlocked on others.
Now in Maryland, ethical disclosures are discretionary, said William Somerville, a state lawyer who helps lawmakers navigate Maryland’s ethics laws. Some members, he said, don’t have lifestyles that are prone to ethical conflicts. Plus, he said, such disclosures are often one-time, blanket affairs, that according to the law never have to be re-filed.
Members are advised to disclose conflicts when they are considering legislation that could affect only them or a small group they are affiliated with.
But, there’s no guarantee the disclosure will tell readers anything.
Disclosures often lack the context needed to discern what is being discussed. In fact, details shared with Somerville or members of the legislative committee that review the disclosures are confidential. If the subjects of a disclosure refuse to discuss it, it may never be explained.
For example, in March, Delegate Hattie Harrison, D-Baltimore, disclosed that in 1992 she received a $2,000 loan from Beryl Tubaya and that she did not report the transaction to the State Ethics Commission, as required by law.
“I had no knowledge of the transaction that occurred between Beryl Tubaya and Jay Schwartz,” the disclosure said. “I was unaware that Jay Schwartz had given Beryl Tubaya the money to lend me. The loan was repaid in full.”
The document failed to identify either Tubaya or Schwartz or to explain the connection between the two and the loan. Harrison did not return repeated phone calls to her offices. Contacting Schwartz and Tubaya also was unsuccessful.
The mystery behind the 8-year-old loan wasn’t unraveled until four months later at a July ethics committee meeting, when panel members criticized the disclosure.
It turns out, Schwarz, a top lobbyist, gave Tubaya, his aide, the money to give to Harrison.
Earlier that month, Delegate Kenneth Montague Jr., D-Baltimore, co- chairman of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, said he couldn’t provide any of the missing details either. Because of the law’s confidentiality provisions, the most he could say was that the disclosure was “some kind of transaction that somehow eventually related to a lobbyist.”
In fact, he couldn’t even say if he counseled Harrison on the disclosure.
Montague said he could understand how the public would be confused by disclosures like Harrison’s.
“It doesn’t sound as if the current law requires any attention as to if the public can completely understand what is in the record. It doesn’t put any burden on the member to make the record understandable,” he said. “It may warrant another look at the law.”
Kathleen Skullney, executive director of Maryland Common Cause, a government watchdog, said disclosure is meaningless if it’s not clear what’s being disclosed.
“They’re supposed to alert the public as to what the effect of the disclosed relationship is to carrying out the responsibility of the given office,” Skullney said. “If they have fully and completely disclosed, the effect should be self-evident.”
Harrison also disclosed that in 1994 she failed to notify the State Ethics Commission that lobbyist Bruce Bereano paid the $1,050 in attorney’s fees she incurred while testifying in his federal mail and wire fraud case.
Harrison wrote in the disclosure that the money was intended as a gift, but she would now treat it as a loan to be paid back with interest. Bereano was eventually convicted in that case and sentenced to five months of home detention and five months in a halfway house and fined $20,000. He was later disbarred.
When reached at home in October, Harrison declined to comment leaving unanswered the question why she filed these disclosures more than five years after the fact.
However, Bereano said he paid the fees of those involved in his trial because he didn’t want others to pay for his problems. He said the idea that this practice would slant people’s testimony is “absolutely preposterous” because everyone chose their own lawyers.
But Skullney disagrees.
“It’s hardly a philanthropic gesture,” she said. “It’s obviously self- serving.”
Somerville said the Tubaya/Schwartz loan is legal, but the payment of attorney’s fees is not. In any case, Harrison should have filed a disclosure promptly, he said.
Under the ethics proposals expected in the 2001 session, both the loan and the attorney fee payment, considered a gift, would be illegal. The planned bill also would require disclosures be made available on the Internet, making them more accessible, if not more intelligible.
However, the idea of legislating ethics doesn’t make sense to some. Sen. George Della Jr., D-Baltimore, said it’s impossible to legislate ethical behavior. It’s not an issue his constituents are concerned with either, he said. Della did not file any ethical disclosures last legislative session.
“My constituents judge me on my conduct and what I’ve done for them,” Della said.
On the other side of the issue is Delegate Dana Dembrow, D-Montgomery. “If you think special interest money doesn’t buy access, doesn’t buy influence, doesn’t buy legislative results, you’re naive,” he said.
Last session, Dembrow disclosed that he holds mutual funds connected with a Maryland financial institution affected by legislation. That bill eventually died.
Disclosure is important, he said, but not the solution to a fundamentally flawed system.
The need to outspend election opponents has created a cycle where legislators pander for lobbyist contributions, and in turn lobbyists push for legislative favors.
“At the state level we’re going into an area where it’s getting harder and harder to get elected as a community leader with a bunch of friends and elbow grease,” Dembrow said.
The solution is publicly financed elections, he said. And for those who have given up on the current system, Dembrow has some advice.
“The reality is whether you trust us or not, we’re the ones making the decisions,” he said. “And when people drop out and turn off (it) makes it easier for `the players’ to continue the status quo,” he said.
Skullney said the solution to the ethics’ quandary is clearer laws, consequences and objective policing.
“If the drunk driving laws in Maryland were enforced like the good government laws,” she said, “there would be carnage on the road.”