A package of far reaching ethics bills - including measures that would vastly expand the financial disclosure requirements for public officials and tightly control their wining and dining by lobbyists - was proposed for the scandal-ridden state of Maryland yesterday by acting Gov. Blair Lee and leaders of the State Senate.
Collectively, the separate proposals presented to the General Assembly would give Maryland some of the strictest laws in the country regulating the behavior of public officials, potentially down to the level of high school principals.
Among its more ambitious goals, the package woud curb wining and dining of public officials by limiting them to $25 a year in free meals and crimp the style of some Annapolis lobbyists by requiring them to disclose the names of officials they entertain.
Government officials would have to wait a year after leaving public service to take a job with a business whose interests they once influenced. While they remain in oiffice, the officials would be required to disclose all sources of outside income.
While traditionally cool to ethics measures, Maryland legislators are expected to be more receptive this session because the coming statewide election and last summer's political corruption conviction of now-suspended Gov. Marvin Mandel.
The election year significance of the ethics issue was evident yesterday when Lee and Senate President Steny H. Hoyer, one of Lee's gubernatorial campaign opponents and leading sponsor of the Senate bill, competed for media attention.
Lee sent his chief legislative officer to distribute and explain his ethics package after Hoyer called together reporters to unveil the Senate measure. Hoyer said the bills are "the legislature's response to the problems we're had in the state and the concerns of our citizens for honesty and integrity in government." Lee said his measure would help correct "a bad phase in Maryland history that we need to put behind us."
Current ethics laws in Maryland are regarded as weak and largely unenforceable, in part because they represent a hodge-podge of laws enacted separately over the years without much effort to ensure obedience to them.
Both measures to be considered this year in Annapolis call for creation of a five-member board to investiage conflicts of interest by public officials.
The board would be empowered to subpoena witnesses and documents, compel testimony under grants of immunity and order a halt to illegal or improper behavior. No administrative agency in Maryland now has equally broad powers, which generally are reserved for law enforcement authorities.
The new board in each measure would assure the powers and responsibilities of six independent panels now involved with ethics laws, notably the Board of Ethics, which has no subpocra or immunity rights and can only issue advisory opinions to the governor.
One of the most sustantive differences between the two measures is the number of officials who would be covered by the proposals, Conflict of interest laws now extend to same executive branch and state elected officials. Financial disclosure requirements now cover some local and state officials.
The Lee administration bill would apply the ethics proposals to all local and state government officials, although exemptions from financial disclosure requirements would be allowed for emplyees earning less than $25,000.
The Senate bill would extend conflict of interest and financial disclosure laws to all state officials, including members of regulatory commissions not now covered. But the measure would not apply to local officials.
The Lee package would require lobbyists to disclose the names of officials they entertain and they amount spen. Currently, lobbyists do not have to make those disclosures of they spend less than $15 a day on each official.
Government officials who have long been prevented from receiving gifts from businesses or persons whose interests they regulate would have to limit themselves to $25 worth of free meals under the Lee proposal and $100 worth of gifts under the Senate bill.
Both measures require public officials to disclose their assets, but only the Senate bill would have officials reveal other sources of income. For example, lawyers would have to give the name of their law clients and the amounts of their fees.
The Senate bill goes beyond conflict of interest by forbidding members of regulatory agencies from taking moonlighting jobs with businesses. Officials would not be able to take consulting jobs with clients who could benefit from their official actions.