If it had not been the last week before politicians were to file their candidacies for this year's election, and if Acting Gov. Blair Lee III had not been the official most of these politicians saw as their chief opponent, there might have been some recognition for Lee's promulgation of a revised state ethics code.
When Lee presented the code to the public last week, not one of the candidates paused to congratulate him for his executive order revising the ethics code. The revised code will for the first time, forbid the governor and other state officials from accepting gifts from friends who do business with the state. It is also the first change in the code to directly answer some of the problems uncovered during the political corruption trial of Marvin Mandel.
The revised code is a tribute to Lee's stamina in trying to establish a set of rules that would restrict politicians from bringing more dishonor to the state. This winter Lee presented a broad ethics bill to the legislature that would have covered not only officials of the executive branch but members of the legislature and the state's judges. It was a confusing piece of legislation.
It was also only one of two ethics bills before the General Assembly. The other was sponsored by State Senate President Steny H. Hoyer, now Lee's running mate and then his opponent for the gubernatorial nomination. Lee's bill was ravaged and failed.
He did not give up. In late April, Lee presented his first draft revision of the state ethics code which applies only to officials of the executive branch and to all state employes.
Marvin Mandel issued the first ethics code but he did not put his own office under its authority. When the federal prosecutors presented evidence of gifts worth more than $350,000 that Mandel received from his friends who earned even larger sums doing business with the state, Mandel could plead at his trial that he had done nothing wrong. The state ethics code did not apply to the governor, only those under him. Mandel was convicted under federal laws; the state code could not be applied at his trial.
Lee's April draft revision closed that gap and put the office of governor into the code. But Lee also created new loopholes. In the original code, employes and officials could accept and solicit gifts "of nominal value." Lee defined nominal value of gifts worth $50 or less, a provision that was far more lenient than allowed by the board that administers the ethics code.
Lee was criticized, in print and by Common Cause, the citizens' lobby that had promoted Lee's earlier attempts to pass ethics reform through the legislature. The acting governor at first chafed at the attacks and then nothing was heard from him about the ethics code.
He made his ticket, bringing Hoyer on as his running mate. He prepared comments and issued papers on his campaign.He became a candidate.
Then last week, as his opponents were asking him to debate in forums on how to reform the state campaign laws or chiding him for shifting his position on pension reform. Lee brought back his revised code. His critics were won over. Common Cause called it "a strong, fine improvement."
Lee's final revision, which went into effect last Saturday, forbids the solicitation of any gift and allows nothing but the odd promotional gimmick to be accepted as a gift. He did keep the controversial provision allowing employes and executive branch officials to eat and drink as much as they could as long as it was consumed on the premises where it was purchased.
But no longer can a Maryland governor allow his insurance broker friend to pay for a family. Florida vacation - complete with rented golf carts and new suits for the governor's birthday - and plead innocence of disobeying the law of the state. Diamond bracelets for a governor's wife from real estate friends also won't wash. Lee's ethics code finally makes it against the law.