The Maryland General Assembly enacted by a wide margin tonight a comprehensive ethics code covering all state officials.
"I think this is a historic day in Maryland. This has been a four-year effort to bring Maryland to the forefront in establishing proper standards [of conduct] in our law," Sen. John Carroll Byrnes (D-Baltimore), the principal sponsor of the legislation, said.
The bill basically codifies existing regulations covering the conduct of state officials, however, it tightens restrictions on the kinds of gifts officials can accept. It also requires officials to disclose more information about their peronal finances.
Violations of the measure would be punishable by civil penalties that could each as high as $1,000 a day for each day a violation occurs.
The vote came in the Senate at 11:20 p.m. following a seven-hour filibuster on an unrelated issue. The vote was 38 to 5. The measue was passed by the House of Delegates Friday.
The bill, a top priority of Gov. Harry R. Hughes and the General Assembly leadership, establishes a state ethics commission with the power to investigate any complaints of wrongdoing or conflict of interest by maryland public officials.
The commission, which will be appointed by the governor, also will have subpoena powers.
The bill covers all elected officials, members of the executive branch and judges. It also covers state employes above job grade level 18, those who draft, negotiate or execute contracts and those who are in policy-making positions.
The ethics bill, which takes effect on July 1, grew out of the legislature's concern in improving the image of the Maryland state government, which has been marked by numerous scandals.
The first financial disclosure reports will not be due until April 15, 1980, according to Sen. John Cades (R-Anne Arundel).
Despite its smooth passage in the Senate tonight, the bill has been one of the most controversial ever to come before the legislature.
"The thing that bothers me [about the ethics legislation] is the presumption that we're all dishonest. No matter what law we pass or how tight it is, somebody is going to violate it," said Del Catherine Riley (D-Harford County). But the honest man will be faced with a tremendous amount of paper work and disclosire."
"I frankly don't think it's an earth shattering bill. The affairs of state are not going to be different," said Del. Joseph Owens, (D-Montgomery County). He said that a number of legislators are confused as to exactly what the bill prohibits and what it permits.
Under the bill, public officials would be required to report any gifts valued at more than $25 and from whom they receive them. It also would require them to list any members of their immediate families who are employed by businesses doing work for the state. In addition, officials would have to disclose whatever property they own in or out of the state.
The way Riley said she understands the ethics bill, she would have to disclose gifts of over $25 from her sister, who is a nurse employed by the Hartford County Board of Education.
"To me, that is an affront," Riley said.
"I don't believe any legislation will make anybody honest or dishonest," said Sen. Frederick Malkus (D-Dorchester) in voting against the bill.
However, Sen. Howard A. Denis (D-Montgomery), said, "No law can make a crook into an honest man. But this bill gives guidance to public officials who want to act in an ethical manner."
State officials will be able to request advisory opinions from the ehtics commission, legislators said last night.
The ethics bill had been held up as rural and suburban senators staged a filibuster against a police aid bill. The senators said that bill unfairly favored the city of Baltimore.
The deadlock was broken when the Senate agreed to postpone action on the $6.7 million police aid bill after two attempts to muster the necessary 32 votes to end the filibuster failed.
The House of Delegates and the Senate also are still locked in disagreement over the capital expenditures budget.
That dispute centers on four multiservice centers slated for construction that would cost the state an additional $21 million and which some legislators have charged are merely "pork barrel projects."
The House of Delegates cut back on school construction funds in order to fund the multiservice centers.The Senate cut out the multiservice centers and wants the school construction funds restored. A conference committee has been appointed to resolve the dispute.
The senate recessed at 2 a.m. Sunday and set its next meeting for Monday morning.
The assembly is scheduled to adjourn Mondday at midnight.