Common Cause Renounces Md. Ethics Bill
By Daniel LeDuc
The move by Maryland Common Cause represents a serious setback for reform efforts in a legislative session dominated by controversies over ethical misconduct by lawmakers. House leaders have promoted the bill, which seeks to head off problems by giving lawmakers access to lawyers who would advise them on ethics.
But Common Cause said yesterday that the measure has been so watered down that it can't support it, a move one House leader said could doom the proposal.
Among the most offensive provisions, the group said, is a requirement that lawmakers be notified of the name and address of any person who seeks to review forms disclosing possible conflicts of interest. Maryland Common Cause Executive Director Kathleen Skullney said constituents curious about potential conflicts involving a delegate or senator might not want to view a file if they also felt they might go to the legislator seeking help for a problem.
"That constituent has to choose between his right to look at that [file] and his right to have his interest addressed," she said.
In a year in which one senator has been expelled and a delegate has resigned following ethical allegations, Maryland's General Assembly has responded with five legislative proposals aimed not at toughening standards but at protecting legislators under scrutiny. The weakening of the one measure aimed at improving standards is a sign that the General Assembly is more interested in protecting itself than in policing itself, Skullney said.
"It's that us versus them mentality," she said. "If we don't fix that, we don't fix anything."
In the wake of the initial scandals in January, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) announced plans for a task force to review legislative ethics guidelines and prepare recommendations for the General Assembly session next year.
Legislative leaders said that they have largely held back on ethics proposals because they want to see what comes out of the task force. Taylor expressed disappointment that Common Cause had withdrawn its support for his proposal.
"She misunderstands what we're doing," he said of Skullney. "We both want the same thing."
House Majority Leader John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery) said Common Cause's new position could imperil the bill, which passed the House of Delegates on Wednesday and is now pending in the Senate. Common Cause's imprimatur is frequently sought by legislators who propose ethics and campaign finance reform bills.
"They are shooting themselves in the foot," Hurson said.
Legislative leaders have been trying to figure out how to respond to a wave of newspaper stories this year about alleged ethical misconduct by lawmakers. A Baltimore state senator was expelled on charges that he abused his office for private gain, and a delegate resigned after the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics began an investigation into allegations of ethical misconduct.
The ethics committee has held off on investigating other allegations, saying it is too busy to do so before the General Assembly adjourns April 13.
Many legislators have complained that the ethics committee does not follow rules of due process when investigating complaints of wrongdoing. That has prompted four bills -- none of which have gone anywhere -- meant to ensure that accused lawmakers can face their accusers.
"We've created this monster, trying to be ethical, when the public should be the judge," said Del. Clarence Mitchell IV (D-Baltimore), who has complained that lawmakers are being treated unfairly. "The public has the opportunity every four years to express its concern. It's the election."
Initially, Common Cause had supported Taylor's proposal to create a staff for the ethics committee. Taylor proposed at least a three-person staff, including lawyers, who would meet twice a year with lawmakers individually to counsel them about potential conflicts they might face between their private business lives and their duties as lawmakers.
But since proposing the staff two weeks ago, Taylor has pushed to reduce its size out of concern that there would not be enough work for that many people on a full-time basis. And he included the notification provision criticized by Common Cause.
Skullney and Common Cause Chairman Bobbie Walton discussed their concerns with Taylor and other leading lawmakers at a breakfast meeting Thursday. Skullney said the lawmakers told her that the latest changes to the bill were slight and would not change its impact.
"They tried to make it sound like inconsequential subtleties, and they're not. They're substantial," Skullney said. After the meeting, she said, she and Walton decided their organization could no longer support the legislation.
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