Joint Panel Irons Out Md. Ethics Guidelines
By Robert E. Pierre
Maryland legislative leaders agreed yesterday on tougher ethics guidelines meant to restore public trust in government, a year after embarrassing scandals led to the expulsion of a senator and resignation of a delegate.
The proposed guidelines would restrict lawmakers' employment with state and local governments, force legislators to recuse themselves from votes on bills in which they have conflicts, and limit their ability to raise money for charities. The age-old practice of legislators accepting free meals and tickets to events from lobbyists would end.
But the bill, which would affect only the General Assembly's 188 legislators, would not prohibit those seeking favors from contributing thousands of dollars to a lawmaker's election campaign.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) had vowed to push the new guidelines through in the initial days of the 90-day session. But the vehement reaction from members -- some felt they were being called crooks -- forced the measure to linger longer.
After the House and Senate approved separate measures last month, a conference committee that included Taylor and Miller agreed to the final details yesterday. The two men predicted the accord would pass the full House and Senate.
Taylor and Miller rarely serve on such committees but decided to do so in this case to send a strong message that Maryland's first extensive overhaul of ethics guidelines in two decades deserved their personal attention.
"I think we've clearly got the strongest bill we could possibly get and clearly can put this issue to rest for a while," Taylor said.
Many legislators have insisted that the new rules of engagement for legislators were not a priority of their constituents at home. They complained that passage of the restrictions would send a message that all legislators were crooks and needed legislative shackles to avoid breaking the law.
Several lawmakers defended the existing guidelines, saying the rules were strict enough to lead to the expulsion of one of their own, Sen. Larry Young (D-Baltimore), after wrongdoing was uncovered last year. Del. Gerald J. Curran (D-Baltimore) later resigned after questions were raised separately about his activities.
Still, legislative leaders pledged to take another look at the guidelines after the debacle. They decided to retain a special counsel to advise lawmakers on potential conflicts of interest. And Miller and Taylor formed a special committee, headed by U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), a former Maryland House speaker, to recommend the changes that were the basis of the new guidelines.
But lawmakers balked at several of Cardin's recommendations, including one that would have banned legislators from soliciting charitable donations from lobbyists. A compromise bans them from soliciting donations directly from lobbyists but allows legislators to seek them from the lobbyist's employer.
And to ease the sting of a meals ban, legislative leaders decided to allow lawmakers to accept meals -- when the legislature is not meeting -- from a lobbyist's employer if that company or entity is in the member's district.
By far, the most controversial recommendation was the Cardin commission's suggestion that legislators be banned from taking jobs in state and local government. Yesterday's agreement allows legislators to accept human services positions or a position in the merit system -- upon approval of the legislative Ethics Committee.
Miller said he was pleased with the final product but unsure if it would achieve its ultimate goal of restoring faith in government.
"Hopefully, the public will recognize we did the best we could under the circumstances," Miller said. "Any time you curb anyone's opportunity for employment, you've made a big change in the law. I'm not certain this will restore public confidence . . . but it certainly will not take away from the confidence in government."
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