AFTER MUCH political agony and several defeats, Maryland's state lawmakers earlier this year enacted some new ethics rules. It's not that a great crackdown was needed, they hastened to say, but because the session began with allegations and then findings of improprieties among some colleagues, new procedures were necessary to clear the air.
But one important recommendation made by a commission appointed to study ethics in Annapolis wound up studiously ignored. The commission, headed by U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin, urged that the state lawmakers' financial disclosures be made available on the Internet. Oh, but that would be too available, members complained. The disclosures may be matters of public record, they said, but best not make the record too easy to look up.
Instead, it was agreed that the information would be available to anyone who wants to travel to the offices of the State Ethics Commission in Towson, north of Baltimore. Once there, citizens must sign in; this way, any legislators who so request will be notified by letter each time someone looks at their files.
That can be intimidating. But now a public interest organization has come up with a way to disclose the disclosures. Common Cause Maryland is photocopying the disclosures of all 188 lawmakers and punching them into computers. By fall, it hopes to have all the information available at www.commoncause.org.
If the hits on the site prove heavy, says Common Cause Maryland Executive Director Kathleen Skullney, the organization might expand its project to put conflict-of-interest statements on the Web as well. The financial disclosure statements of county executives also may be posted.
How embarrassing this may prove for any public officials is anybody's guess, but perhaps it will embarrass enough state officeholders into a measure making this public information genuinely public, with an official, direct Internet connection to all who may wish to know.