Ethics Cases Rock Maryland Legislature
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 11, 1998; Page A01
Ethics controversies took center stage in the Maryland General Assembly yesterday, as a House leader yielded his committee chairmanship over new charges and defiant Democrats in Baltimore nominated Larry Young to retake the Senate seat from which he was expelled last month.
In the House, Del. Gerald J. Curran (D-Baltimore) announced he was temporarily stepping down as chairman of the Commerce and Government Matters Committee while the legislative ethics committee reviews accusations that he used his post to advance his insurance business.
Meanwhile in Baltimore, the five members of the 44th District Democratic Central Committee voted unanimously last night to recommend that Young fill the seat vacated when the Senate voted to expel him. Young is accused of abusing his legislative position to draw tens of thousands of dollars from companies and agencies interested in good relations with state government.
"I am ready to roll up my sleeves and go back to work," Young told 150 supporters gathered in Baltimore. He called his ouster a "lynching" and told the central committee, "Tonight you will have the opportunity to cut me down from the tree."
Young's move seemed certain to prompt a legal battle while escalating the brewing controversy over legislative ethics in Annapolis. It also poses new political risks for Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who has the final decision on whether to reappoint Young, a longtime ally, to the Senate seat.
Typically the governor goes along with the recommendations of local committees in filling legislative vacancies. But the staff of the Maryland attorney general said yesterday that the governor "may not appoint" Young because the Senate expelled him for the rest of his term ending in January.
However, Young suggested that if the governor does not appoint him, the central committee will file a lawsuit challenging Glendening's decision. Moreover, Glendening supporters acknowledge that the governor, who has tried studiously to stay out of the Young controversy, faces a no-win situation politically. Glendening is up for reelection this year.
"There's some potential for it to do him damage in Baltimore if [Glendening] refuses to appoint [Young], and it does him damage in the rest of the state if he does appoint him," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), one of nine legislators who voted against Young's expulsion.
A spokesman for Glendening said the governor had "received strong opinions on the eligibility of the nominee from the attorney general" and would review them.
Racial considerations may make both of the ethics cases especially painful, legislators said. Young is black, whereas Curran is white. Although many legislators say Curran's alleged transgressions are far less serious than Young's, "some will say there's a double standard here" if Curran, a close ally of House of Delegates Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., isn't strongly disciplined, said Del. Rushern L. Baker III (D-Prince George's).
Both episodes clearly have rattled many of the 188 part-time lawmakers, many of whom have full-time jobs that intersect with the state government agencies that the General Assembly oversees.
The question of whether legislators can aggressively pursue their occupations without benefiting -- or appearing to benefit -- from their political status "deals with the heart and soul of a citizen, part-time legislature," said Taylor (D-Allegany).
In this election year, when all 188 seats are up for election, legislative leaders have proposed a year-long study of ethics requirements. Any substantial changes to ethics laws would not occur, if at all, until next year. But the issue is on lawmakers' minds now.
"Everybody's talking about it," Baker said. "This is the hottest topic for now."
Lawmakers had hoped the spotlight on ethics would fade after the Senate voted Jan. 16 to expel Young. But the Baltimore Sun reported Sunday that Curran, an insurance broker, spent five years prodding state officials to implement a program allowing University of Maryland employees to buy auto and homeowners insurance through payroll deductions.
Curran had business arrangements with the two eligible insurance companies, and he now may reap up to $30,000 a year in commissions. In repeatedly pressing a reluctant university system to begin the program, Curran met with then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein and other officials to cut through red tape. He once met with a key university official in his Annapolis legislative office.
He gave the ethics committee a mandatory disclosure of his business ties to the insurance company last month, even though the deal was completed in May 1997.
Curran said this week that he did nothing wrong and has always acted with "the utmost of integrity and honesty."
Some critics said it's highly unlikely that a non-legislator could have gotten audiences with Schaefer and other key officials, as Curran did. The average person would say, "Gee, I don't have that kind of access," said Kathleen Skullney, director of the watchdog group Common Cause of Maryland. Lawmakers should be keenly sensitive to an appearance of impropriety, she said.
"If they treat that as the first standard, they won't cross the line," she said.
She said the current controversies should offer a hospitable environment for reform. Such action would include giving the state prosecutor expanded powers in official corruption cases -- a measure killed in a House committee only last week -- and making legislative disclosure statements more accessible to the public.
"Do it now," Skullney said. "You don't need a year's worth of study to do that."
Several State House veterans said legislators must use discretion and good judgment in pursuing their non-legislative jobs.
"It's impossible to legislate morality," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's). "We continue to be a part-time legislature. We want people to have vocations outside the legislative arena. . . . We don't want to say there can't be an insurance agent in the Senate. We don't want to say an insurance agent can't sell insurance to a state employee. What we can say is we don't want an insurance agent to use his position to sell insurance."
Asked if the General Assembly can draw up a law that makes that distinction, Miller replied, "No."
Colleagues noted that Curran didn't act on a bill affecting the university insurance program, and there's no evidence that he threatened reluctant officials in any way. "It doesn't appear that he did anything illegal," said Del. Leon G. Billings (D-Montgomery).
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