It was veteran Maryland lobbyist James Doyle who summed it up best: "There are many people in the state who believe 'lobbying ethics' is an oxymoron."

But there they were anyway, Doyle and 12 other members of the Study Commission on Lobbyists Ethics, which met for the first time 10 days ago and will work through autumn studying the laws regulating the hundreds of lobbyists who work in Annapolis.

The commission was formed by lawmakers who decided it was time to find out whether regulations on lobbyists were adequate. The study comes a year after a similar commission looked at legislative ethics and recommended many changes in how legislators can interact with lobbyists--changes that many lobbyists said they've found confusing or illogical.

Former delegate Donald B. Robertson, of Montgomery County, is chairman. He has scheduled meetings almost weekly between now and November.

There are 571 people registered to lobby, far more than just a decade ago. And there are some important new trends as well, John O'Donnell, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, told the study group. The Ethics Commission registers lobbyists and is the clearinghouse for the lobbyists to report their clients, fees and expenses.

"The number of employers [or clients] is growing faster than the number of lobbyists," O'Donnell said. "What that really means is that more and more power is being placed in the hands of less and less."

He said that the top 24 lobbyists accounted for about half of all the lobbying fees. That means those lobbyists frequently have closer relationships with legislators and more influence.

Changes in lobbying laws that take effect Oct. 1 may only heighten that influence. Although lobbyists will be barred from buying meals for individual lawmakers, they still will be allowed to entertain legislative committees and delegations.

Those group dinners usually are held at the toniest restaurants in Annapolis and can cost several thousand dollars. That means a lobbyist with deep pockets still can entertain, but one on a tighter budget will have it tougher.

"I can't take a single legislator out for a bottle of beer. Yet if I can finagle enough money from my clients, I can throw the most lavish dinners," said Doyle, a member of the study group who is considered the dean of the lobbying corps.

In addition to Robertson and Doyle, the other panel members are lobbyists Annie Kronk, William Pitcher and Joel Rozner; Sens. Michael J. Collins (D-Baltimore County) and Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery); Dels. John S. Arnick (D-Baltimore County), Robert H. Kittleman (R-Howard) and Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore); and public members Herbert Alexander, a retired University of Southern California professor, Wilveria Riddick, a Baltimore schoolteacher, and Dorothy Fait, a Rockville lawyer.

The commission's next meeting will be at the House Office Building in Annapolis at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Longtime Official to Retire

Robert L. Swann, a popular state official who served briefly as comptroller after the death of Louis L. Goldstein last year, has announced that he's retiring Oct. 1.

Swann, a native of Calvert County, joined the comptroller's office in 1961, working for Goldstein, who went on to be the longest-serving state official in Maryland history. Goldstein died in July 1998, and Swann, who was deputy comptroller, was appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) to fill in at the top job until after that year's election. Former governor William Donald Schaefer (D) was elected and took office in January. Swann resumed his old job as deputy, overseeing data processing, general accounting, payroll and budget functions for the office, which acts primarily as Maryland's tax collector.

"Anything I've achieved in my career I owe to the late comptroller Louis Goldstein and to my co-workers in the comptroller's office," Swann said in a statement. "And although I'm retiring, I'll always maintain a great interest in the affairs of the state of Maryland."

Trucker Shows Guest the Road

Last Thursday was take-your-transportation-secretary-to-work day for trucker Dawn Nichol.

Frustrated by the aggressive driving she sees while hauling toys for Toys R Us, the 31-year-old Gaithersburg woman wrote to Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) in March, pleading for driver education that teaches people to share the road with trucks. "I hope you can understand how I feel, and if you can't I invite you to ride with me one night," she wrote.

She never really expected Glendening to take her up on the offer. He didn't, but Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari did.

Nichol and Porcari buckled up and embarked on an eye-opening 35-minute ride along some of Howard and Baltimore counties' busiest routes.

Early on, a white Geo Metro merging from Interstate 295 onto Interstate 195 darted in front of Nichol on its way to the far left lane, cutting her off and causing her to tap her brakes hard. There were a few more instances like that as Nichol and Porcari headed to Interstate 95 north, then to the Baltimore Beltway, Interstate 70 and Route 29 south and back toward Department of Transportation headquarters via Route 100 and I-295. Porcari saw how difficult it is for a truck to switch lanes--no one wants to let a big rig in front of them--and what massive blind spots trucks have on both sides and behind them.

Nichol doesn't pretend that all truckers drive safely. She admits that some make pretty dangerous moves at times. But she thinks most truckers get a bad rap, and Porcari agreed.

Porcari used the event to highlight truck safety, urging motorists to help truckers by staying out of their blind spots and by remembering that for a truck to stop completely takes three to four times the distance it takes a car.

Staff writer Angela Paik contributed to this report.