The Maryland Senate will form a new committee devoted to overhauling the state’s ethics rules after a court case last year in which Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George’s) was found not guilty of federal crimes but acknowledged some ethical lapses.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) on Friday announced the formation of the Special Senate Committee on Ethics Reform and said it would work aggressively to make some initial recommendations that could be passed into law during the 90-day session that starts next week.
Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), who was tapped to lead the panel, said he and others grew interested prior to the Currie trial in taking a broader view of the rules that govern Maryland’s “citizen legislature” and other levels of government.
But the trial clearly proved a tipping point in the decision to move ahead with a new panel. Federal prosecutors alleged that Currie had used his office to do government favors for Shoppers Food Warehouse, a grocery chain, in exchange for $245,000 in payments over the span of five years.
Currie’s defense said the arrangement was a legitimate consulting arrangement but acknowledged he failed to disclose it on ethics forms and that he voted on legislation benefiting Shoppers from which he should have recused himself.
Prosecutors also presented several high-ranking state officials as witnesses who said they met with Currie, the former chairman of the Senate Budget & Taxation Committee, without knowledge that he worked for Shoppers.
Raskin said one obvious reform is making the financial disclosure forms filled out by lawmakers available to the public via the Internet. Under current law, citizens must review the forms or have copies made during a visit to a state office in Annapolis.
“We need to be making much better use of the Internet to get people access to our information,” said Raskin, who is a law professor at American University.
Most Maryland lawmakers have jobs outside the legislature, which meets full time only 90 days a year.
Being a “citizen legislature is a great virtue,” Raskin said. “But the downside is that there are a whole host of ethically perilous situations that can arise because people have other lives they are engaged in.”
Raskin said the panel will seek to draw clearer lines about what is improper.
Currie faces proceedings this session from a separate legislative ethics committee that will examine his conduct. It has the power to recommend sanctions ranging up to expulsion.