After Currie scandal, Md. ethics reforms begin to take shape

March 2, 2012

With the censure of Maryland Sen. Ulysses Currie still reverberating around the State House, lawmakers are nearing decisions on ethics reforms they hope will prevent another scandal like the one that enveloped Currie, the state’s longtime budget committee chairman.

But the line regarding what is improper in Maryland’s part-time legislature – where doctors, lawyers and others take up legislation in their areas of expertise – promises to remain a fine one.

Last month, a unanimous Senate censured Currie (D-Prince George’s) for failing to disclose outside consulting payments, as required by state ethics guidelines. Currie, who accepted money from a grocery store chain while pushing legislation favorable to it, also was the subject of a federal investigation but was acquitted of all counts.

The Senate’s decision to censure Currie appeared to be an acknowledgment that his actions were only a shade worse than the conflicts of interest routinely confronted by other part-time lawmakers. The changes under consideration — which were the subject of hearings Friday by an ethics task force and an ethics committee — would permit such conflicts to continue but would make them more transparent.

In what would be the first major changes to the state’s ethics guidelines in more than a decade, lawmakers would be required to review their tax returns with the state’s ethics adviser, and their financial-disclosure statements would be posted online.

The lawmakers who reviewed Currie’s case recommended that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) do more to enforce the requirement that members meet annually with William G. Somerville, the legislature’s ethics counsel.

“There hasn’t been a strict accounting every year of the face-to-face meeting,” Somerville said, adding that the tax-return requirement — meant to ensure that there are no discrepancies with required financial-disclosure forms — would be new.

Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary’s) introduced a bill that would make public a list of the lawmakers who meet with Somerville. “By the end of the year, you are going to want to be on that list,” Dyson said at a hearing Friday.

The meetings have not always been face-to-face. “Some people were just doing it over the phone,” said Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery).

Miller “took that recommendation and sent a message to everyone reminding them to meet in person” with the ethics counsel, Raskin said. Busch said he will issue a “mandate that everybody has to meet” with Somerville.

The type of problem such a reform would be meant to address came up as recently as last week, when Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola (D-Montgomery) was accused by a political opponent of failing to mention his employment by a D.C. lobbying firm on financial-disclosure forms.

Having financial-disclosure forms on the Internet would replace a system in which anyone wishing to see them must go to an Annapolis office building during business hours and present identification. Lawmakers are notified of requests to view their disclosure forms.

“It’s really a burden to people. . . . It has a real chilling effect,” said Susan Wichmann, executive director of the government watchdog group Maryland Common Cause.

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