The Maryland House reluctantly voted today to "note its disapproval" of ethics violations by Prince George's Del. Francis J. Santangelo, but not before dozens of its members denounced the ethics reforms that spawned the proceedings and vowed to prevent such legislative self-discipline from occurring again.
Santangelo, 61, a Landover insurance broker who was found by a special House committee to have violated the state's financial disclosure law, rose moments after the vote to declare that he had been vindicated by the mild House action. He then urged his colleagues to use his case as a "catalyst for reform" of ethics provisons, which he said "had placed a burden on me that St. Francis of Assisi couldn't carry."
House members replied with a thunderous standing ovation. Santangelo, a Democrat, strode off the floor to tearfully embrace dozens of his colleagues, who during the hour-long debate on his case first threatened to kill the minor rebuke, then supported it only after denouncing ethics restraints on public officials -- enacted in the wake of a decade of political scandals -- as "ridiculous," "goody-two-shoes" and "a sad comment on Maryland and democracy."
"The ethics law we've thrust on the people of this state makes it very difficult for people in the state to run for public office with integrity," said Del. Michael H. Weir (D-Baltimore County), one of many who called on the House to gut laws that require disclosure of financial interests by legislators and seek to prevent them from influencing legislation and state business that would personally benefit them.
The resolution, the result of a year-long legislative investigation of Santangelo, passed the House 124 to 8 only with the help of personal lobbying by Santangelo and assurances from House leaders that it was the best way to end consideration of his case. "Let's put an end to it," Santangelo told fellow delegates as he gave them the thumbs-up signal on periodic trips through the House lounge.
As the House sat in respectful silence, Santangelo described what he said were "the frustrations of not being able to speak out for two years . . . of legal expenses that have taken food off my family's table . . . of sleepless nights, of the piercing glances, the questioning glances."
Delegate after delegate rose to denounce the proceedings, and House leaders finally turned to arguments that the resolution represented no real judgment against Santangelo, but in fact, as Del. Gerard F. Devlin (D-Prince George's) put it, was an indication that he only "violated a sort of ethical traffic signal" rather than "committing a crime."
Only House Majority Leader Donald B. Robertson (D-Montgomery), the chairman of the investigative committee, attempted to defend the ethics rules or the finding of a violation by Santangelo. "The legislative process works in strange ways," he concluded after the vote.
Robertson, an architect of the 1979 ethics reform package that created the means for the legislature to investigate and discipline its members, predicted that the House would "end up reviewing the issues that have been raised" about the ethics law during its summer interim "in a moderate and modest way," despite the calls for gutting or repealing ethics and disclosure laws today.
Santangelo was found by the House investigative committee to have violated the state's financial disclosure law by failing to report during a 13-month period in 1978 and 1979 that he held an interest in firms that were winning state contracts to run "big band" shows at the state-owned Ocean City Convention Hall.
The committee cleared the Landover delegate of other charges that he had improperly used his office to obtain the state contracts after its 20-day investigation -- like earlier probes by the legislature's Joint Ethics Committee and a Prince George's County grand jury -- was unable to substantiate those allegations.
Instead, the investigative committee said Santangelo had provided normal constituent services when he attempted to help Robert Wall, the son of a Prince George's campaign worker, obtain contracts to promote concerts at the convention hall. Wall's company, Dana Production Inc., eventually did win the contract, and Santangelo shortly after obtained an interest in Wall's big-band promotion company.
Santangelo erred only by failing to list Wall's firms on his 1977 and 1978 financial disclosure forms, which all public officials in the state are required to fill out, the committee concluded.
Today, two years after the grand jury investigation of the charges began, Santangelo publicly answered the charges against him for the first time. He said he had not listed the promotion firm on his disclosure forms because he had "made a personal judgement" that he did not need to.
By law, state officials are required to list every corporation in which they have an interest and Santangelo, according to the committee's finding, owned 45 percent of the band promotion firm. But Santangelo contended today that "I felt I had no interest in the company. I didn't run it. I had nothing to do with it."
On the House floor, Santangelo thanked his colleagues for their "fairness" to him, then emotionally declared that "you have to walk in these shoes to understand the law" and what he said was the need for "reforming" it.