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  •   A Blurred Line on Ethics

    By Daniel LeDuc
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, April 6, 1998; Page A01

    During a Maryland General Assembly session absorbed by concerns about conflicts of interest, two lawmakers reached two very different conclusions last week about whether they could vote on legislation designed to help the state win a lawsuit against cigarette makers.

    One delegate abstained because he used to work for the state's lawyer -- who stands to make hundreds of millions in legal fees. But another legislator vociferously led opposition to the bill -- even though he used to be a lobbyist for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, one of the bill's leading opponents.

    Each decision was perfectly legal under Maryland's ethics law. But the drastically different approaches to potential conflicts of interest illustrate the wide disparity in how lawmakers in Annapolis view what is appropriate behavior.

    That ambivalence reflects the reality that despite a series of ethics scandals that have rocked Annapolis this year, the Maryland General Assembly is largely tolerant when issues of money and influence are at stake. Almost any behavior is allowed except legislators directly using their office to enrich themselves, according to a Washington Post review of the disclosure files of all 188 senators and delegates and interviews with nearly three dozen lawmakers and outside experts on ethics.

    Although Maryland's ethics laws are considered by good-government groups to be among the better in the nation, they leave wide room for interpretation and much misunderstanding of the requirements, legislators said. Lawmakers, all of whom serve part time, routinely vote on bills that could benefit their economic interests in their other careers, and some even introduce such measures.

    This year, farmer-legislators have opposed new regulations on fertilizer use that were sought by environmentalists. Lawyers have helped set the salaries of the judges they face in court. And physicians have voted on bills regulating HMOs.

    Among lawmakers themselves -- perhaps in the best position to know of conflicts involving their peers -- there is little interest in rooting out colleagues who might have conflicts. Legislators resist attempts to establish an independent ethics agency to govern them, insisting that they should police themselves. Yet, in the cozy world of Annapolis, they acknowledge that collegiality among lawmakers is central to how bills get passed. Few have an interest in jeopardizing good relations by raising questions about their fellow legislators. The General Assembly's own committee charged with monitoring ethics, moreover, rarely takes action unless prodded by accounts in the news media.

    Despite this year's scandals, there has been a dearth of reform proposals. "I'm not criticizing the institution," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany), "but we are in a legislature that is reluctant to do this [ethics-related] stuff."

    Taylor and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) have said they expect reforms to come from recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel they want to study ethics laws during the summer.

    But law and regulations can only go so far, lawmakers warn. After all, ambiguous conflicts are virtually built into Maryland's legislature, where members are paid less than $30,000 a year and many hold outside jobs. The current General Assembly includes teachers, lawyers, physicians, engineers, firefighters, police officers, insurance brokers, real estate agents, tavern owners, telecommunications executives, retirees and even a couple of lobbyists (who don't work in Maryland).

    "People once thought they knew what was appropriate behavior," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore). "But the sands are shifting. We're in a shift right now. I think most legislators thought they knew where the lines were, and they're finding out they're not where the public thinks the lines are. Wise legislators are adjusting their viewpoints."

    Many lawmakers frequently sound defensive about the heightened scrutiny over ethics, saying that if voters are upset with their actions, they can vote lawmakers out of office.

    "The public has the opportunity every four years to express its concern," said Del. Clarence Mitchell IV (D-Baltimore). "It's the election."

    Last week's debate on the bill meant to help the state win a lawsuit against cigarette makers highlighted the varying attitudes toward potential conflicts of interest. In the House, Del. Timothy D. Murphy (D-Baltimore) decided to abstain because, he said, he used to work for Baltimore lawyer and Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, who represents the state.

    "Am I erring on the side of caution? Yes," he said.

    Del. James M. Kelly (R-Baltimore County) also decided to abstain because his brother works for Angelos and, he said, would likely work on the case. "I want no problems," he said.

    In the Senate, some lawmakers viewed the decision differently. Sen. Robert R. Neall (R-Anne Arundel) led a filibuster on the tobacco legislation before voting against the bill. The legislation was strongly opposed by the state Chamber of Commerce, where Neall used to be a lobbyist. A self-described "pro-business" legislator, Neall said he felt a duty to vote against the bill. "I'd have voted this way if I never crossed paths with the chamber," he said.

    Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. (D-Baltimore County) did not vote -- though he had declared he might if he felt it necessary, even though his ties to the legislation were the closest of any sitting legislator: He works for Angelos. Two years ago, Stone sponsored legislation to help Angelos by adding more judges to hear asbestos damages cases, a key part of their law firm's business.

    Despite such differences in attitudes, it wasn't so long ago that sensitivity to conflicts of interest was hardly addressed at all in Annapolis.

    In one infamous State House episode from the 1970s, then-Sen. Joseph J. Staszak (D-Baltimore), who owned a tavern, was asked if he had a conflict of interest on a liquor bill. "How does this conflict with my interest?" said Staszak, who later pleaded guilty to mail fraud and tax charges in an unrelated matter.

    Times have caught up with the Maryland legislature. In January, for the first time in its 221-year history, the Senate expelled a member, Larry Young, a Baltimore Democrat. The ethics committee determined that Young had used his office to enrich himself by obtaining contracts from health companies and other entities with business before the state. Six weeks later, Del. Gerald J. Curran (D-Baltimore) resigned after a report in the Baltimore Sun that he had used his influence to obtain lucrative insurance business with the University of Maryland System.

    A review last year by the Council of State Governments concluded that Maryland's laws are actually tougher than those in 31 other states in their disclosure requirements, limits on associations with lobbyists and other restrictions. But how rigorously those rules are followed and enforced is another matter.

    The ethics law has several features. Lawmakers are not supposed to use the prestige of their office for their personal gain, a provision that got Young and Curran in trouble. Disclosure is a must. Lawmakers are required to file reports with the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics whenever they face the appearance of a conflict of interest. But lawmakers may go ahead and vote on a bill, despite a potential conflict, if they can swear that despite that "presumed or apparent conflict," they can vote "fairly, objectively, and in the public interest."

    Determining whether a lawmaker can make such a declaration of fairness -- or should even bother to consider doing so -- is left almost exclusively to one person: the lawmaker in question. Prevailing custom in Annapolis, backed up by opinions from the ethics committee, is that lawmakers should try to vote in most cases.

    "Unless you want a full-time legislature, people have jobs and conflicts of interest might arise," said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan (R-Montgomery). "We weren't elected down here to [abstain], we were sent to vote."

    Some legislators disclose far more than required by the law; others -- at least 36 -- have empty files, and many believe it politically expedient to do so.

    Del. Nancy K. Kopp (D-Montgomery) files detailed personal financial information, listing the stocks she owns as well as the mutual funds in which she invests. She's not required to disclose such information with the ethics committee and, in fact, she said a committee member discouraged her from doing so.

    "It'll just raise questions," she said he told her. "I inferred that it was causing other colleagues problems because they weren't doing it."

    Del. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), while filing the required financial disclosures required of all state officials, tries to keep her file on potential conflicts of interest empty -- and in her four years in Annapolis has succeeded. A political consultant and a substitute teacher, Kagan said she has not had the appearance of conflict on legislation thus far.

    "There's a tendency to minimize your disclosure," she said. "In this era of gotcha, I don't think we can be blamed for that. In this era, legislators are guilty until proven innocent."

    Even in a legislature where members are reluctant to criticize one another, there have been occasions this year when eyebrows have been raised over a colleague's actions.

    Last month, the General Assembly's two firefighters voted to approve a bill requiring a referendum before any county could privatize its fire department. The House killed the bill after concerns that the firefighters might have had a conflict in their support for it -- though the bill's supporters said that critics of the legislation used the ethical concerns as an excuse.

    "There was a lot of hallway talk that what we were doing wasn't right," said Del. Brian Moe (D-Prince George's), one of the firefighters. "We were on the up and up."

    Last week, the House voted to increase the pensions of teachers and some state workers -- affecting at least nine General Assembly members directly and many others if their spouses or children benefited. The ethics committee told affected legislators that if they felt they could decide fairly, they could vote if they disclosed their conflict.

    That went too far for some legislators. "You have legislators or their spouses who directly benefit from the legislation," said House Minority Whip Robert L. Flanagan (R-Howard). "There's a very clear nexus between what the vote is and their personal gain."

    Kathleen Skullney, executive director of the watchdog group Maryland Common Cause, was even more blunt. "It's going directly into their pockets," she said of the affected lawmakers. "How objective can they be in assessing the public's interest?"

    Speaker Taylor weighed in to urge affected lawmakers to abstain, and 17 did.

    Still, legislators say abstaining from votes is not always the ethical decision it appears. Frequently, a lawmaker with a conflict of interest wishes to vote no on a piece of legislation. Abstaining has the same effect as a no vote and allows the lawmaker to appear aboveboard.

    Others argue that too much can be made of potential conflicts. Del. Rushern L. Baker III (D-Prince George's) said he has proposed legislation this year that would help attorneys in personal injury cases. His bill would allow certain medical records to be presented as evidence without requiring an expert witness -- who might charge expensive fees -- to testify about them.

    Baker doesn't practice law in Maryland and said he sees the legislation as helping consumers. "But someone could easily say it's a lawyer's bill and you're only doing this to help your business and, in a way, it does," he said. "You talk about where to draw the line. It's hard to know where the line is."

    Second Jobs for the General Assembly

    Serving as a state senator or delegate is a part-time job, paying $29,700 a year. Many legislators in the Maryland General Assembly also hold outside jobs, which sometimes present potential conflicts with votes they make on legislation. Here is a complete list of the outside employment of Washington-area lawmakers, highlighting the range of occupations of state lawmakers.

    Outside employment of Maryland House members from the Washington area:

    Rushern L. Baker III

    (D-Prince George's)

    Lawyer, People's Involvement Corp.

    Robert C. Baldwin

    (R-Anne Arundel)

    Secretary-treasurer, Reliable Contracting Co.

    Kumar Barve

    (D-Montgomery)

    CFO, environmental company

    Raymond Beck

    (R-Montgomery)

    Retired (former Navy career)

    Joanne C. Benson

    (D-Prince George's)

    Supervisor, for Prince George's County Board of Education

    Leon G. Billings

    (D-Montgomery)

    Business owner, Leon Billings Inc., lobbyist/consultant on federal Issues

    Phillip D. Bissett

    (R-Anne Arundel)

    Small business owner, power washing business.

    Elizabeth Bobo

    (D-Howard)

    Lawyer

    Michael W. Burns

    (R-Anne Arundel)

    Self-employed communications consultant

    Michael E. Busch

    (D-Anne Arundel)

    Assistant to Director, Anne Arundel County Department of Parks & Recreation

    Joan Cadden

    (D-Anne Arundel)

    Small business owner, cosmetology business

    Barrie S. Ciliberti

    (R-Montgomery)

    Professor/business owner

    Virginia P. Clagett

    (D-Anne Arundel)

    Full-time legislator

    Mary A. Conroy

    (D-Prince George's)

    Full-time legislator

    Michael A. Crumlin

    (D-Prince George's)

    Co-owner, Hard Copy Management

    Jean Cryor

    (R-Montgomery)

    Freelance writer

    Dereck Davis

    (D-Prince George's)

    Full-time legislator

    Dana Lee Dembrow

    (D-Montgomery)

    Lawyer

    Nathaniel Exum

    (D-Prince George's)

    Safety director, Joseph Smith & Sons, scrap metal company.

    Patricia Anne Faulkner

    (R-Montgomery)

    Self-employed, has insurance license

    Robert L. Flanagan

    (R-Howard)

    Self-employed lawyer

    Peter Franchot

    (D-Montgomery)

    Lawyer

    Barbara Frush

    (D-Prince George's)

    Owner, Terrapin Clothespin

    Gilbert J. Genn

    (D-Montgomery)

    Lawyer, owns law practice

    Marilyn Goldwater

    (D-Montgomery)

    Health care consultant

    Michael R. Gordon

    (D-Montgomery)

    Lawyer, partner, Erlich & Gordon law firm

    Janet Greenip

    (R-Anne Arundel)

    Full-time legislator

    Sharon Grosfeld

    (D-Montgomery)

    Lawyer, specializing in family Law, Hyatt, Peters & Weber

    Anne Healey

    (D-Prince George's)

    Freelance writer

    Henry B. Heller

    (D-Montgomery)

    Adjunct professor, University of Maryland; retired state administrator

    Sheila Ellis Hixson

    (D-Montgomery)

    Consultant

    Carolyn J.B. Howard

    (D-Prince George's)

    Supervisor, for Prince George's Board of Education

    James W. Hubbard

    (D-Prince George's)

    Assistant sheriff, Prince George's County

    Brenda B. Hughes

    (D-Prince George's)

    Full-time legislator

    John A. Hurson

    (D-Montgomery)

    Ketchum Public Relations in D.C.

    Thomas E. Hutchins

    (R-Charles)

    Retired from state police; still active in Maryland National Guard

    Cheryl C. Kagan

    (D-Montgomery)

    Political consultant and substitute teacher

    Robert H. Kittleman

    (R-Howard)

    Farmer, raises beef cattle

    Nancy K. Kopp

    (D-Montgomery)

    Full-time legislator

    Richard La Vay

    (R-Montgomery)

    Broker, construction loans for Choice Hotels

    John Leopold

    (R-Anne Arundel)

    Full-time legislator

    Samuel C. Linton

    (D-Charles)

    Owns lumberyard, runs a farm

    Mary Ann E. Love

    (D-Anne Arundel)

    Retired

    Adrienne Mandel

    (D-Montgomery)

    Full-time legislator

    Pauline H. Menes

    (D-Prince George's)

    Full-time legislator

    Van T. Mitchell

    (D-Charles)

    Small business owner, Mitchell Supply in La Plata

    Brian Moe

    (D-Prince George's)

    Firefighter, Howard County

    John S. Morgan

    (R-Howard)

    Engineer, John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, Laurel

    Mathew Mossburg

    (R-Montgomery)

    Business owner

    C. Anthony Muse

    (D-Prince George's)

    Pastor

    Anthony J. O'Donnell

    (R-Calvert)

    Supervisor, Baltimore Gas & Electric, Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant

    George W. Owings III

    (D-Calvert)

    Mortgage banker, Harbor Financial in Upper Marlboro

    Richard A. Palumbo

    (D-Prince George's)

    Lawyer

    Obie Patterson

    (D-Prince George's)

    Retired

    Shane Pendergrass

    (D-Howard)

    Full-time legislator

    Marsha G. Perry

    (D-Anne Arundel)

    Executive director, Power Skating for Skate Nation.

    Carol S. Petzold

    (D-Montgomery)

    Office Manager, engineering firm in Wheaton

    Joan B. Pitkin

    (D-Prince George's)

    Freelance writer

    James E. Proctor Jr.

    (D-Prince George's)

    Works for Prince George's Board of Education

    James E. Rzepkowski

    (R-Anne Arundel)

    Works for an agent of State Farm.

    Victoria L. Schade

    (R-Anne Arundel)

    Works for Baltimore Gas & Electric

    Mark K. Shriver

    (D-Montgomery)

    Director, Local Services Division of LCI International

    John F. Slade III

    (D-St. Mary's)

    Lawyer, self-employed

    Frank S. Turner

    (D-Howard)

    Professor, Morgan State University

    David M. Valderrama

    (D-Prince George's)

    Retired

    Joseph F. Vallario Jr.

    (D-Prince George's)

    Lawyer

    John F. Wood Jr.

    (D-St. Mary's)

    Insurance Agent, self-employed

    Outside employment of Maryland Senate members from the Washington area:

    John C. Astle

    (D-Anne Arundel)

    EMS helicopter pilot; works for contractor for Med-Star & Washington Hospital Center.

    Ulysses Currie

    (D-Prince George's)

    Retired, (formerly director of Head Start in Prince George's).

    Arthur Dorman

    (D-Prince George's)

    Retired (former Ophthalmologist)

    Roy P. Dyson

    (D-St. Mary's)

    Lecturer, Charles County Community College

    Jennie M. Forehand

    (D-Montgomery)

    Full-time legislator

    Brian E. Frosh

    (D-Montgomery)

    Lawyer, partner with Karp, Frosh, Lapidus and Wigodsky.

    Leo E. Green

    (D-Prince George's)

    Lawyer, Green & Green

    Patrick J. Hogan

    (R-Montgomery)

    Full-time legislator

    Philip C. Jimeno

    (D-Anne Arundel)

    Insurance agent, State Farm

    Edward J. Kasemeyer

    (D-Howard)

    Injured Workers Insurance Fund, Baltimore/Towson

    Gloria G. Lawlah

    (D-Prince George's)

    Director of special constituencies for Bowie State University

    Martin G. Madden

    (R-Howard)

    Insurance agent, Nationwide Insurance in Lanham

    Christopher J. McCabe

    (R-Howard)

    Development Officer, Johns Hopkins Medicine

    Edward Middlebrooks

    (R-Anne Arundel)

    Lawyer, self-employed

    Thomas McLain Middleton

    (D-Charles)

    Farmer, self-employed

    Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.

    (D-Prince George's)

    Lawyer

    Robert R. Neall

    (R-Anne Arundel)

    Director, Johns Hopkins Health Care Co.

    Paul G. Pinsky

    (D-Prince George's)

    Union leader/teacher, Montgomery County Teachers Union

    Jean W. Roesser

    (R-Montgomery)

    Full-time legislator

    Ida G. Ruben

    (D-Montgomery)

    Full-time legislator

    Leonard H. Teitelbaum

    (D-Montgomery)

    Owner, small computer company

    Decatur W. Trotter

    (D-Prince George's)

    Consultant

    Christopher Van Hollen Jr.

    (D-Montgomery)

    Lawyer, Arent, Fox, Kintner & Plotkin

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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