Saying the reputation of the Maryland General Assembly is at stake, an 81-year-old lobbyist and former legislator appeared at a hearing today in support of a group of bills that would combat what one lawmaker called the rising political influence of special interest lobbyists.
William S. Wilson Sr., a corporate lobbyist, former delegate and Annapolis observer for the last half century, made a surprise and poignant appearance before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee here today to support a package of bills that would require lobbyists to file more detailed reports on political contributions they make to lawmakers and expenses they incur.
Wilson, once one of the General Assembly's highest paid lobbyists, told the committee that with his 82nd birthday approaching next week, this session would probably be his last. As a result, he asked the panel "to do everything you can to raise the standard of the legislature," and elevate what he said was diminishing public esteem for the body in which -- in 1936 -- he served as a committee chairman. At that time, legislators had such amenities as an expense allowance of only $25 a week, and Wilson expressed disgust that now legislators take for granted that he and other lobbyists will contribute to their fund-raising campaigns.
Sen. Julian Lapides (D-Baltimore), cochairman of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, drafted the eight bills discussed today. He said he purposely presented the bills in an election year to highlight his concern that the General Assembly has become too dependent on the blandishments and fund-raising abilities of the more than 600 lobbyists registered with the State Ethics Commission last year.
"No one here questions the value of the lobbyist; however, recently this word 'value' has taken on a far too literal meaning," Lapides told the committee.
"It has become all too apparent that these 'minimum' standards of disclosure by elected officials mandated in the current law still provide loopholes through which six-figure lobbyists elevate influence and concern to what borders on outright bribery," Lapides said.
His comments provoked frowns and a noisy harrumph from lobbyist Bruce Bereano, one of the highest paid and most active lobbyists in the state, who earned more than $300,000 for the six months ending last April 30 and had expenses totaling $55,000.
Lapides was joined in support for the bills by Senate President Melvin Steinberg (D-Baltimore County).
Among recent controversies over lobbying are instances in which two House committee chairmen set up special fund-raising committees targeting the businesses that appear before their committees, and lawmakers asking lobbyists to pay for meals at which the lobbyists were not present. In both cases the presiding officers of the House and Senate stopped those practices.
But a more abiding concern of some lawmakers and lobbyists in recent years has been the increased reliance on lobbyists to purchase and sell tickets to fund-raising events.
Lapides' comments were answered by lobbyist Bereano, whose array of lobbying techniques includes furnishing lawmakers with chocolate roses on Valentine's Day and tickets to choice sporting events.
"The fact that some of us earn significant fees is not, in and of itself, wrong and vile and terrible. It could be that is because they worked very hard," Bereano said.