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  •   Maryland Speaker Facing Inquiry

    By Charles Babington
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, March 4, 1998; Page B01

    Maryland's legislative ethics committee will examine the role that House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. played in promoting a state coal lease that benefited one of his friends, a committee co-chairman said last night.

    Taylor (D-Allegany), one of the state government's three most powerful officials, has said he did nothing improper. But Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr. (D-Baltimore), House chairman of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, said the panel routinely makes an inquiry when news articles suggest that legislators have misused their authority.

    "Any time there is an article that is written that alleges an impropriety by a legislator, the ethics committee looks at it," Montague said. "I don't know of a situation where we haven't."

    Citing committee confidentiality rules, Montague declined to say when the panel will take up the Taylor matter.

    Although Taylor said Friday that he saw no need to refer the matter to the ethics committee, he said yesterday that he welcomed the review. "That's exactly what I hoped they would do," he said.

    Asked whether he was confident that he would be cleared, Taylor said: "I am totally confident for one reason. There have been no ethical violations."

    The Washington Post reported last week that Taylor intervened with state officials to expedite a complicated land swap that gave businessman James J.J. Oberhaus certain mining rights to some state-owned land in Western Maryland.

    An independent appraiser, Henry F. Moomau, said the state should have received about $1 million more than it did under the 1995 lease agreement.

    As part of his efforts to promote the deal, Taylor made two phone calls to Moomau, who was evaluating the deal at the time. Taylor said he merely urged the appraiser to act promptly, but Moomau has said he felt Taylor was among those pressuring him to come up with appraisals favorable to Oberhaus.

    Taylor, long the dominant politician in Western Maryland, vigorously defended himself in a news conference last week. He said he acted properly in promoting the coal deal sought by Oberhaus, his friend and a constituent.

    At the time, the Senate chairman of the ethics committee, Sen. Michael J. Collins (D-Baltimore County), said he did not think the committee would take up the matter. Several legislators remarked that unlike ethics cases already considered this year, the coal lease involved no allegations that a legislator had benefited personally from the deal.

    But some of Taylor's colleagues have urged the speaker to request an ethics committee review to clear his name. Others have urged him to hire a lawyer. Others say he should do nothing more.

    The usually low-profile ethics committee has played a major role in this year's legislative session.

    The committee conducted the investigation that led to the Jan. 16 expulsion of Baltimore Democrat Larry Young from the state Senate and it launched the investigation that led to last week's resignation of Gerald J. Curran, another Baltimore Democrat, from the House of Delegates. Both cases grew out of Baltimore Sun articles.

    The committee has substantial leeway in deciding what to make public. In cases where no violations are found, there is often no publicity of any kind.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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