Last year, the Maryland Bankers Association held its annual convention in Boca Raton, Fla.
Among those in attendance were two members of the Maryland Senate, Harry J. McGuirk and Jerome F. Connell Sr., and one member of the House, John R. Hargreaves.
The three were guests of the bankers, who paid all the expenses of these public servants, may God forgive me for using such terminology.
When the Maryland legislature convened this year, by a curious coincidence it was Connell who sponsored a bill to raise interest rates on some loans by 50 percent.
The previous year's free junket immediately became the subject of controversy. Some legislators charged that the freebee had helped smooth the way for passage of a bill that increased profits for bankers.
When it was suggested that a conflict of interest existed, Connell angrily responded, "I could probably buy and sell you. I have enough money to go where I want to go and when I want to go."
Apparently Connell has saved a tidy sum by letting others pick up tabs for him. He can now afford to pay his own way if he chooses. I am not clear on who was the subject of his "buy and sell" comment, but I hope it wasn't staff writer Saundra Saperstein because, on the whole, I would say it is much easier to buy and sell state legislators than newspaper reporters.
Be that as it may, the bill sponsored by Connell, enthusiastically supported by committee chairman McGuirk and Sen. James C. Simpson, and vigorously endorsed by the banking lobby, was passed. A couple of days ago, Gov. Harry (See How Clean I Am) Hughes signed it into law. McGuirk, Hargreaves, Connell and Simpson thereupon got on an airplane and flew off to -- no, not Boca Raton, that was last year. They flew off to "the sumptuous Southampton Princess Hotel in Bermuda," scene of this year's bankers' convention, and spent several days "in a setting of lush green golf courses, aquamarine waters and palm-studded sands." All except Sen. Simpson were again on freebees paid for by the bankers. Simpson is a bank director in Charles County as well as a member of the State Senate, and banks usually pay for junkets taken by their own directors.
The sad part of all this is that the people involved don't even have any sense of guilt or wrongdoing. When reporters call them and say, "How can you accept costly gifts of this kind from lobbying groups and special interests and then do their bidding?" they just blink their eyes innocently and say, "I see no conflict of interest." These things are no longer scandalous aberrations; they are routine.
We have long known that our democratic system has been subverted by two basic types of public (some day I'm going to choke on the term if I don't stop using it) servants. One is the cynical, unprincipled politician who will say or do anything he thinks will win him votes, regardless of how untrue or damaging it may be. The other is the mercenary politician whose credo is, "Everybody else gets rich doing it, so why shouldn't I?" If the price is right, this one will sell you the state capitol or a license to steal.
Those of you who have had the endurance to stick with me during the decades it took to make a cynic of me know that I am still wedded to democracy. With all its faults, it is the best system I know. It offers the best hope that the average man will be treated equally and fairly, and perhaps more important, decently. Humanely.
But surely there must be some way to remedy democracy's glaring inadequacy -- the fact that in a democracy, reform of the legislature lies with the legislature.
Our system of permitting legislatures to police themselves and discipline their own members makes about as much sense as putting a rabbit in charge of protecting a patch of lettuce. If democracy fails, it will be because the rabbits we elect to our legislatures -- local, state and federal -- cannot control their appetite for free lettuce.
I am disgusted with legislators who indulge their porcine appetites at the public trough for so many years that they no longer see anything wrong with the practice.
They think self-enrichment is their divine right; I think their divided loyalties constitute a clear and present danger to the Republic. One of us is just plain dead wrong.
It has been said that it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. I would like to help light that candle. Thus far, I have contributed little of value to my country. Before my days run out I would like to do one thing that J. Y. Smith might think it worthwhile to include in my obituary. I would like to encourage you readers to find a way to subject legislators and legislatures to a code of ethics without subjecting them to police state controls.
Can it be done? Can you light the candle? If not you -- who?