ANNAPOLIS – Public lobbyists should be subject to the same restrictions as private lobbyists, critics of the latest Maryland ethics bill charged during Wednesday’s debate on the Senate floor.
Debate continues today on the bill, which would increase fines for ethics violations, expand the kinds of lobbying and spending that must be reported and require registered lobbyists to attend a training course twice a year.
Opponents’ main concern was the lack of restrictions for government lobbyists, who are not covered by current law or the new legislation. For instance, a University of Maryland lobbyist could give away tickets to a university basketball game, but a private lobbyist could not pass out the same tickets.
Sen. George W. Della Jr., D-Baltimore, said representatives from state agencies often bypass the Legislature to lobby for funds and go straight to the governor’s office.
“What makes them any different from regulated lobbyists?” he asked.
Wealthy individuals are another problem, said Della. They aren’t registered as lobbyists, but come frequently to Annapolis to press their points with legislators and the governor, he said.
Various actions trigger the state requirement to register as a lobbyist, said William Somerville, legal counsel to the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics. Some of those triggers include paying more than $100 in entertaining fees, paying someone more than $500 to lobby, or receiving more than $500 as compensation for lobbying. Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, complained legislators won’t understand the bill. “This bill’s as clear as mud to me, senator,” Baker said, “I know you understand this bill, but I don’t.” Baker asked one bill sponsor, Sen. Michael J. Collins, D-Baltimore County, if there would be a class to explain the bill to legislators, as there would be for the lobbyists themselves. Collins said legislators would probably be welcome to join the ethics classes. The bill’s main feature is to expand the disciplinary role of the State Ethics Commission, allowing it to directly impose civil fines up to $5,000 for each violation. Criminal fines would be increased from $1,000 to $10,000, under the bill, and the statute of limitations would increase from one year to two.
The ethics commission also could indefinitely suspend the registration of a regulated lobbyist for ethical lapses or criminal offenses arising from lobbying.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, pledged earlier this year to make this bill a top priority. Collins said he was sure it would pass partly because legislators are wary of public opinion after a number of recent ethical scandals.
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 pay Evans to lobby against. Lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who was convicted of seven counts of federal mail fraud in 1994, returned to lobbying during the 2000 legislative session. In 1998, state Sen. Larry Young was expelled from the Senate for ethical violations, but later acquitted of criminal charges. The State Ethics Commission continued its investigation, eventually fining Young $2,250 for filing incomplete financial disclosures of benefits and compensation he received while a legislator. – 30 – CNS-2-14-01