Md. Panels Pass Watered-Down Ethics Measures
By Daniel LeDuc and Robert E. Pierre
Two key legislative committees unanimously approved watered-down ethical guidelines yesterday for Maryland lawmakers, after many legislators said the original proposal was too harsh.
Panels in both the House and Senate scrambled to jump-start the stalled reforms recommended by a special commission appointed after ethics controversies dominated last year's legislative session. Though legislative leaders had vowed swift action, no headway had been made until committees in each body took up the legislation yesterday.
The amended measure approved by the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee differed from the one approved by the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, all but guaranteeing that the final legislation will land in a conference committee and that debate could continue until the 90-day session ends next month.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) had pledged to pass the commission's recommendations without amendment, but both said they were startled by the vehement opposition from many legislators who saw the proposals as too restrictive.
Yesterday, legislators said the House and Senate revisions were a substantial step forward.
"It sure . . . will improve our image with the public," said Del. Robert H. Kittleman (R-Howard), the House minority leader.
In an effort to make the House bill more palatable to recalcitrant delegates, the panel approved amendments that watered it down. Though the bill bans wining and dining of individual lawmakers by lobbyists, a provision that would have prohibited them from soliciting lobbyists for charitable donations was dropped.
But such soliciting would be banned while the General Assembly is in session, and legislators would have to disclose when lobbyists gave to charities at their request. The commission had recommended against charitable solicitations, saying they were a way for lobbyists to curry favor with lawmakers.
"There's no ethical problem there," said Taylor, who is active in fund-raising for charities in his home district in Western Maryland. "We're talking about helping the communities we live in."
Annapolis lobbyists have said they sometimes view such solicitations as akin to campaign contributions ways of earning the goodwill of lawmakers whose votes they need.
The House chairman of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, Kenneth C. Montague Jr. (D-Baltimore), said that he views such charitable solicitations as illegal. State law bans lawmakers from soliciting gifts, and charitable solicitations fit that definition, he said.
"I don't like the idea at all especially lobbyists," Montague said. "It still promotes a cozy relationship between legislation and lobbyists."
The House version also permits legislators to take jobs with state and local governments with approval of the ethics committee. That contradicts the special commission's recommendation, which had sought to ban lawmakers from taking such jobs as a way of preventing legislators from using their positions as leverage when seeking a public job.
Also contradicting the commission, the House version does not require that legislators' financial disclosure statements be posted on the Internet. Such information is available to the public, but those wishing to see it must travel to the State Ethics Commission office in Towson.
One area where the changes approved by Taylor are tougher than the initial recommendations is in prohibiting anyone who is a lobbyist or employs a lobbyist from giving sports tickets to lawmakers. That provision of the House measure closes a loophole in the recommendations, which said that sponsors of events could give tickets meaning that Orioles owner Peter Angelos, a wealthy lawyer who often has direct interest in Maryland legislation, could have provided tickets.
The proposal approved by the Senate committee last night retains the ban on legislators seeking most government jobs, except in human services and public safety. The Senate bill also does not require posting financial disclosure information on the Internet but retains the prohibition on charitable solicitations.
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