State Senators Approve Guidelines on
By Daniel LeDuc
The Maryland Senate yesterday gave preliminary approval to a new series of ethics guidelines, but not before several senators declared that some proposals to restrict their outside employment amounted to "discrimination."
The guidelines would put restrictions on lawmakers who seek jobs elsewhere on the public payroll, a move that proponents say could guard against a public perception that legislators have the inside track for those positions.
But many senators opposed the restrictions which fall short of the complete ban on such employment that was recommended by a special legislative commission saying that some legislators need the jobs to support themselves. They said the restrictions would result in a legislature made up of people who were independently wealthy or self-employed, because no one else could expect to leave a job for 90 days every year to attend the legislative session in Annapolis.
"You're going back to the landed gentry we had 100 years ago that excluded people," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Baltimore).
Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson (R-Carroll) said he and other legislators sometimes miss out on career and other financial opportunities because of their service. "We are discriminated against at times, and that never makes a headline," he said, arguing that the new guidelines were an attempt to appease a "hypocritical press."
The guidelines stem from a series of ethics scandals last year, cases that first were brought to light in newspapers and that led, after legislative investigations, to the expulsion of a senator and the resignation of a delegate. Legislative leaders formed a special commission headed by U.S. Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), a former speaker of the Maryland House to review the laws governing lawmakers' ethics. The proposals mark the first update in Maryland's legislative ethics laws in 20 years.
"It's 95 percent of the Cardin Commission and then some," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) said after yesterday's preliminary approval. "I don't know that everybody's ever satisfied. It's the best we could do under the circumstances."
The guidelines would ban individual legislators from accepting meals and drinks paid for by lobbyists, although they would allow lobbyists to entertain groups of lawmakers at parties and receptions. The proposal would ban legislators from accepting free tickets to sporting and cultural events. It also would restrict those from whom legislators could solicit contributions for charities they support. Many lobbyists have complained that they feel obliged to make such donations to stay in a lawmaker's good graces.
Although the Cardin Commission recommended a prohibition on legislators seeking employment with local or state governments, except for public safety jobs, the lawmakers decided on less stringent restrictions. Still, the provisions were among the most hotly debated yesterday in the Senate and last week in the House.
The Senate version would allow legislators to pursue, in addition to public safety jobs, teaching positions, human services positions and other merit-based employment. The House version would allow broader employment, but it also would require the legislature's ethics committee to approve the job, a provision that many delegates criticized as giving the committee too much power.
Proponents said the employment restrictions are intended to prevent legislators from pressuring a local or state official for a job, using the power of their office, for example, to weigh in on the budget of the official's agency. But critics said that legislators often have the potential to abuse their power with private employers, a concern that is unaddressed in the new ethics guidelines.
The new restrictions are difficult in a state with a part-time legislature, most of whose members have other employment that could potentially create conflicts of interest, some legislators said.
"We are on the road to becoming a full-time legislature, whether we like it or not," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore). "It's the worst thing that can happen."
The House has given initial approval to similar legislation governing ethics guidelines. After both chambers give their final approval, probably later this week, a House-Senate conference committee will work out a final compromise.
Both chambers have rejected the Cardin Commission's recommendation that financial disclosure statements filed by each legislator be posted on the Internet. The disclosures are available now to those who travel to the State Ethics Commission offices in Towson. Legislators can request that officials tell them the name of anyone who views their filing, feedback that would be impossible if they were posted on the Internet.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company