In Maryland, A Question Of Disclosure
By Charles Babington
As back-to-back ethics controversies rock the Maryland General Assembly, some legislators and outsiders say its system for self-policing is badly broken. As evidence, they point to disclosure documents such as the one filed last year by Del. Richard A. Palumbo (D-Prince George's).
His one-page statement divulged that he represents "clients from time to time as an attorney before many of the state agencies," whose budgets and regulatory powers are controlled by legislators.
But that's all it said. Now nestled in a public file in Annapolis with hundreds of similar forms, it gives the public no idea who his clients are, or what agencies are involved.
The lack of information highlights what critics say is an ineffective system for ensuring that legislators adhere to the highest ethical standards. Rather than spotlighting potential conflicts of interest and disciplining legislators for questionable conduct, the system appears mostly designed to protect members of the General Assembly, they said.
Certainly that appears to be the mentality of some of the legislators charged with scrutinizing their colleagues. Sen. Michael J. Collins (D-Baltimore County), co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, applauded the lack of specifics in the disclosure by Palumbo, himself a member of the ethics committee.
"This is the kind of thing we encourage, really, because it protects the member from criticism," Collins said. "What it does do is protect the member from being criticized by you," he added, referring to the news media.
But other legislators are more concerned, particularly as ethics controversies have come to dominate the General Assembly session this year. The Senate has already voted to expel one of its own for the first time ever, after the ethics committee found that then-Sen. Larry Young (D-Baltimore) abused his position to collect thousands of dollars from companies and agencies with business before the state.
Now the ethics committee has launched an investigation of whether a House of Delegates committee chairman, Gerald J. Curran (D-Baltimore), misused his influence to aid his insurance business. Both inquiries were launched only after reports in the Baltimore Sun.
With more lobbyists and more money pouring into state capitals such as Annapolis, many people inside and outside the General Assembly say an overhaul of ethics rules and enforcement procedures is needed soon. Legislative leaders have called for a year-long commission to recommend changes.
"I think the system has not kept up with the demands of the [legislators'] job," said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr. (D-Baltimore), the other co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics. "The face of things is changing. Pretty soon we're going to have to acknowledge that and make some decisions."
Maryland's 188 legislators are paid about $30,000 a year and meet annually for 90 days, with occasional committee meetings throughout the year. Like part-time legislators in other states, most have outside professions that are touched in varying ways by the General Assembly's work.
And that creates the potential for conflicts of interest. Lawyers are involved with setting the salaries of judges before whom they appear. Teachers help set policies that could affect their own pensions. And employees of the University of Maryland and other colleges are called on to vote on extra funds for the institutions that provide them a paycheck.
Public disclosure of potential conflicts is the best way to deter officials from abusing their influence, academics and lawmakers widely agree. But constructing a fair and meaningful disclosure system, they say, is a difficult balancing act: Legislators shouldn't be frightened away from voting on most issues, but they should be discouraged from backing legislation that would benefit them in ways the average person would not share.
Under current law, legislators are instructed to disclose any potential conflict regarding issues in which they have an interest "distinct from that of the general public." But reviews of disclosure forms suggest widely varying interpretations of this requirement: Some legislators make voluminous disclosures, while others make vague or incomplete disclosures and, in at least several cases in recent years, failed to disclose potential conflicts.
Young, for instance, did not disclose the payments he was receiving from health care companies with business before the state. Last year, Sens. Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore) and Gloria G. Lawlah (D-Prince George's) told the ethics committee of their financial arrangements with universities receiving state funds only after inquiries from The Washington Post.
Some disclosures, such as Palumbo's 1997 form, satisfy the minimum requirements of the law, but do not shed light on potential conflicts.
Palumbo said in an interview that his document was "a general disclaimer" to acknowledge his occasional law practice before state agencies. He said he tries to file a more specific disclosure when he represents a particular client before agencies such as the Motor Vehicles Administration. His public file, however, contains only one reference to particular client, and the agency involved was a water utility.
Another Prince George's delegate, Nathaniel Exum, annually files forms stating that he works for Joseph Smith & Sons Inc., which tows and scraps junk cars and has contracts with some government agencies. Some of his disclosures shed little light, such as the 1995 form in which he wrote simply that he represents the company "before various state agencies on no specific date."
After filing such disclosures, the overwhelming majority of legislators vote on topics in which they have acknowledged "the appearance or presumption of a conflict of interest." They are able to do so after signing a preprinted form declaring that they believe they can act "fairly, objectively and in the public interest."
Sometimes, they sign such documents even when the conflicts appear severe. In 1996, for instance, Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. (D-Baltimore County) said he was acting in the public interest when he championed a bill that could have enriched his full-time employer, millionaire lawyer and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos.
"What they're doing is simply writing themselves waivers," said Kathleen Skullney, executive director of the Maryland chapter of Common Cause. The intent of ethics laws "is to clearly disclose specific conflicts of interests. And there is in the law the presumption that you are disqualified from any legislative activity, such as voting, unless the lawmaker can overcome that legal presumption."
But some legislators disagree. Once lawmakers disclose a possible conflict, they say, it's up to the public to decide whether they vote and act appropriately.
"As I understand, you can do almost whatever you want to do as long as you disclose it," Exum said. "If you disclose it, it's all right."
Skullney urged legislators to overhaul their ethics system before potentially ill-advised changes are pressed by a public that may become disgusted with the recent controversies. "There's a void here that's going to be filled one way or another," she said.
But change may be slow to come to an institution that often seems oblivious to public discontent with politics. On Friday, Collins inadvertently underscored the passivity of the existing monitoring system when reporters asked him if one of Curran's questionable insurance contracts remains in effect. Collins said he didn't know.
"None of you have told me that it's not," he said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company