A legislative ethics panel ruled today that Sen. Laurence Levitan did not violate state ethics guidelines in his cosponsorship of legislation passed yesterday that would remove the 10 percent ceiling on home mortgage rates in Maryland.
In its ruling, the Joint Committee on Ethics accepted Levitan's argument that there was no "presumed conflict" because the Montgomery County senator and the mortgage banking firm he represents would gain no more benefit from the legislation than any other lending firm or lawyer. The committee added that there was "the potential for conflict" in the situation and that Levitan should have filed a statement disclosing his relationship with the mortgage banking firm before he took an active role in the legislation.
Levitan represents a major mortgage banking institution that pays his law firm a $75 fee for every loan transaction.
"There is a possible conflict that is questionable," said Sen. Julian Lapides, the committee's cochairman. "I believe that it is his (Levitan's) interest and the Senate's interest to disclose that relationship. But the subject matter of this bill is of interest to the entire lending industry and supported by a large segment of the public. It's a rather fine point, but the rules of the Senate clearly point out that there's no presumed conflict in such cases."
The committee's opinion, which Lapides characterized as "kind of hedging," means that the panel believed Levitan was acting within the General Assembly's ethics guidelines, but probably should have revealed more than the letter of the law required of him.
"This is a vindication of what I've manitained all along," said Levitan. "I couldn't see how in the world how I could have a conflict on a bill with such broad importance. As for filing a disclosure statement, the only form they have is one that says you have a "presumed conflict," and I didn't have one. I told the committee that if they want people to disclose in situations like mine they'll have to draft new forms."
Levitan's relationship with the mortgage lending industry was revealed in a Washington Post article last month that showed he does legal work for Suburban Coastal Corp., a New Jersey-based firm that operates in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Levitan reviews loans for the corporation, and his law firm receives a $75 fee for every transaction.Levitan, in an interview, said he handles "at least several hundred" home mortgage loans annually.
The bill to lift the interest rate ceiling on home mortgages is expected to be signed by Gov. Harry R. Hughes on Friday. It would, according to its proponents, make it easier for Suburban Coastal and all other mortgage lending institutions to expand their lending policies in Maryland.