ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland General Assembly’s effort to burnish its tarnished reputation stumbled Tuesday with a lawmaker’s effort to kill a provision in an ethics bill to require lobbyists to testify truthfully.
Delegate Leon G. Billings, D-Montgomery, himself an owner of a lobbying firm, opposed a new requirement that lobbyists testify truthfully before legislative committee hearings during the opening floor debate.
The bill would make it illegal for a lobbyist to “knowingly make . . . a statement of material fact (that) the regulated lobbyist knows to be false.”
There’s no written record and testimony is not taken under oath, so the burden of sorting truth from lie would fall to the State Ethics Commission, Billings said. Under those circumstances, it would come down to a “he said, she said” argument between parties who have an interest in discrediting the other party.
It also would be a large expansion of the commission’s duties, Billings said. The commission serves mostly to inform the public by collecting and disclosing financial information about elected officials and lobbying relationships.
Delegate Cheryl C. Kagan, D-Montgomery, also is concerned about the commission’s role as a “quasi-judiciary.” Commission members often would have to determine the “truth” in what is really a difference in point of view among sides, she said.
Differences in how public and private lobbyists are regulated also prompted debate.
Maryland law allows lobbyists for state agencies and local governments to woo lawmakers with freebies that private lobbyists are forbidden. For instance, a University of Maryland lobbyist could provide free basketball tickets, but a lobbyist for a private company could not.
“If the perception is that lobbyists are buying votes, then what’s the difference between lobbyists for private and public (organizations)?” said James F. Ports, R-Baltimore County.
The law creates a special class of lobbyists, said Ports, who plans to offer an amendment to correct the disparity.
Billings agreed, saying, “If we are protecting the integrity of the Legislature, we should regulate all lobbyists.”
The bill also calls for increased fines for ethics violations, prohibits lobbyists from serving on the boards of non-profit organizations and broadens campaign contribution reporting requirements. The bill also would require lobbyists to go through a training session every two years.
Despite the debate, the ethics bill is expected to get a smooth trip through the General Assembly. It breezed through the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee with 20 votes in favor, and two abstentions.
Lawmakers are eager to repair the Legislature’s reputation after a series of high-profile ethics violations in recent years.
Last summer, lobbyist Gerard Evans was convicted of conspiring with Delegate Tony Fulton, D-Baltimore, to introduce anti-lead poisoning legislation, which paint companies would then pay Evans to oppose.
Last session, lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who was convicted of seven counts of federal mail fraud in 1994, returned to lobbying in Annapolis.
And in 1997, Larry Young, a Baltimore Democrat, was expelled from the Senate over allegations that he misused his position to win favors from health care companies. He was acquitted, but admitted in December to falsifying financial disclosures and paid a fine of $2,250.
House debate on the ethics bill will continue Thursday.
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