From The Post
Young's Case Scares Assembly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 1998; Page A12
To his defenders, Maryland state Sen. Larry Young is the victim of an ethical double standard. The alleged breaches and "betrayal of the public trust" that could culminate in Young's ouster, they argue, are commonplace at the State House in Annapolis.
But many current and former legislators, along with watchdog groups, said yesterday that actions Young is accused of, including accepting a $24,800 automobile from a businessman who does business with the state, went far beyond the nickel-and-dime conflicts of most of the General Assembly's 188 members.
"It's a matter of degrees," said Sen. Christopher J. McCabe (R-Howard). "In Senator Young's case, he's clearly gone way over that line."
A similar ethics committee investigation of all members probably would "embarrass a bunch of people," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), a member of the ethics committee when he served in the House of Delegates. "But I'd be surprised if there was anything else as egregious as this," Frosh added.
Young, a Baltimore Democrat who in 24 years in the General Assembly has become a leader in health care matters, stands accused by the legislature's Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics of accepting gifts improperly, failing to disclose a contract with a state agency, mixing his legislative and private office budgets and using the prestige of his office for personal gain.
As a Senate expulsion vote looms in coming days, many lawmakers said they walk a tightrope in a part-time legislature.
In their efforts to make a living beyond the less than $30,000 they are paid for the 90-day annual session, legislators said it is easy to blur the divide between private and public business.
Many lawmakers do work for state-related agencies, but they usually disclose it. Many maintain home-district offices that blend private and legislative business, but they keep the finances separate. Many could be accused of employing their titles on private correspondence, for example in ways that could be construed as using public office for private gain. Teachers in the legislature vote on pension plans, insurance agents on insurance laws.
"I don't think everybody does it," said former Maryland Common Cause executive director Deborah Povich, referring to the sort of infractions of which Young is accused. "But I also don't think Larry Young is 100 percent unique."
Like Young, McCabe does work for an entity that receives state funding. Young had a contract with Coppin State College that initially paid him $4,000 a month and later $5,000 a month; McCabe's full-time job is as a fund-raiser for Johns Hopkins University.
The ethics committee concluded that it could find no record of work that Young did for his pay. By contrast, McCabe said yesterday, he goes to great lengths to document the work he does for Hopkins, so everyone knows that he is not being paid simply because of his status as a legislator.
"Without that, you leave yourself open," McCabe said. "This is a gray area for a part-time legislator, and people who have a career in government-related service set themselves up to be on the edge."
Disclosure, he said, is paramount.
Lawyer-legislators often have faced ethical questions about their activities. Former senator Laurence Levitan, a Montgomery Democrat, came under fire before and during the 1994 campaign for representing clients before state agencies. Although not illegal, the practice was cited by Levitan's opponent, who defeated the incumbent at the polls. The legislature subsequently banned lawyer-members from appearing before state agencies, concluding that it was intimidating for bureaucrats who depend on the General Assembly for funding.
"There's always a lot of potential conflicts of interest," said Levitan, now a lobbyist. "The problem was that Larry Young carried it to extremes."
Levitan said other lawmakers may be susceptible to the type of allegations brought against Young, including paying for private office space that he could not have afforded without using his legislative office expense account.
"Using offices not necessarily on everything for legislative purposes is not that unusual," he said.
One of the allegations against Young is that, by using the title "Senator" on private business correspondence, he was trading on the prestige of his office for private gain, a violation of the legislature's ethics rules.
For part-time legislators, though, it can be difficult to prevent some people from reacting to them as officials when they are not acting in official capacity. A lawyer-legislator appearing on behalf of a client before a judge also has, in Annapolis, a chance to confirm someone to a judgeship, help decide the judge's salary and his pension.
"You can't make people forget you're in the legislature," Frosh said. "On the other hand, what Senator Young is alleged to have done goes well beyond that."
Sen. Decatur W. Trotter (D-Prince George's), a member of the ethics committee, said he would not vote to expel Young and considers that three of the five main allegations involve what he called "technical" violations of ethics rules. Others could be accused similarly, he added.
"In this [Senate] you probably have other people who have unknowingly violated technical rules," Trotter said.
What makes the move to expel Young all the more dramatic is the rarity of such an extreme measure. Despite the presence of assorted scalawags over the years, the last time the General Assembly kicked out one of its own without waiting for a criminal charge or conviction was 201 years ago, when a delegate was accused of cheating at cards.
Povich, who left Common Cause last year after nine years of watching the Maryland General Assembly in operation, said a handful of legislators who reached positions of influence over the years appeared to have used their power for personal gain.
"I'd say maybe six of 188 might have significant conflicts of interest," Povich said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company