Maryland's Board of Ethics gained broad new powers today to investigate possible criminal conflicts of interest involving the state's 60,000 executive branch employees.

Heretofore, the nine-member panel confined its investigations to possible violations of the state code of ethics, which sets general guidelines for employee behavior and carries no criminal sanctions.

Maryland Attorney General Francis B. Burch advised board members today that a new state law authorizes them to look into possible violations of conflict-of-interest laws that impose criminal penalties.

If board members believe they have found a conflict involving a state employee, Burch said in a written opinion, they should report their findings to a state prosecutor and the employee's superiors.

"The board could serve as an investigator for the state's attorney," said Assiistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch, who helped draft the opinion. "Maybel we'll get some prosecutions out of this."

The new law, which was passed by the General Assembly last spring and became effective July 1, requires the board to investigate citizen complaints of conflicts of interest of state employees.

Buch advised the board on its duties in an opinion requested by board members. He said the panel may hold hearings to investigate citizen complaints if it considers the allegations to have "substantial merit."

Under the old statute, the board could begin investigations only at the request of the governor, secretary of personnel or attorney general - a restriction that led to questions of the board's independence.

There also was no provision for turning over investigative findings to prosecutors. Instead, the board was required to submit reports to the governor, personnel secretary, the employee in question and his boss.

An employee found to be in violation of the code's ethical standards - such as using his official position to enrich a private interest - could only be punished by administrative action under the old law.

Maryland's eight-year-old code of ethics, which was promulgated by Gov. Marvin Mandel, applies only to the state's executive branch employees and excludes members of the judicial and legislative branches.

Many of the state's agencies and boards have their own conflict of interest laws - with criminal sanctions - prohibiting employees from participating in official actions in which they have a financial interest.

There also is a general conflict-of-interest law, applying to all state workers, that carries a maximum penalty of $1,000 and a year in jail for an employee found guilty of violating the statute.

In an attempt to set guidelines for future investigations of citizen complaints, Burch said board members should eschew frivolous allegations, but should not require "a strict evidentiary standard."

The panel is obligated to investigate anonymous complaints, he added, noting that there are "well-recognized benefits derivable from anonymous informants."

Reuben Oppenheimer, chairman of the ethics board, said the ruling appears to significantly broaden the panel's authority to make investigations, but he reserved further comment until further study of the opinion.