Two years ago, Maryland's General Assembly session began with a bang: A newspaper series detailed questionable practices by a senator from Baltimore, an internal ethics investigation by the legislature was launched, lawmakers quickly voted to expel the senator and ethical anxiety lingered for the rest of the 90-day session.
On Wednesday, a federal grand jury indicted a delegate from Baltimore and the state's top-earning lobbyist, charging them with an elaborate scheme to defraud the lobbyist's clients. It came after FBI agents spent nearly a year interviewing witnesses and subpoenaing records and after federal prosecutors spent months persuading a grand jury that there was enough evidence to indict the pair.
But Del. Tony E. Fulton will take his seat in the House chamber on Jan. 12, and lobbyist Gerard E. Evans will be roaming the marble hallways unfettered. Neither may be subjected to additional scrutiny until after the criminal process runs its course, leaving some to wonder why the disparate treatment.
"It certainly adds weight to the argument that I was not granted due process," said former state senator Larry Young, who is publicly supportive of Fulton, a fellow Democrat from Baltimore.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) said he wanted to move slowly on a separate investigation into Fulton's activities. Taylor was not involved in the ethics case two years ago because Young served in the Senate. Taylor said he was concerned about providing due process for any delegate accused of wrongdoing.
In Young's case, he said, articles in the Baltimore Sun triggered an investigation by the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics. "For better or worse, that investigation produced a record and a set of recommendations to . . . the state Senate and the state Senate in its wisdom acted on those recommendations," he said.
"This is an entirely different legal situation. What I'm faced with is the result of an official federal investigation of alleged crimes which was conducted by the FBI and resulted in indictments. That set of circumstances does not trigger a Joint Committee ethics investigation. That set of circumstances triggers a criminal trial. Under our jurisprudence system, a person is innocent until proven guilty."
As for Evans, the State Ethics Commission, which regulates lobbyists, will review the charges against him as it routinely does when a lobbyist is accused of wrongdoing, but an indictment does not trigger specific action by the commission, said John O'Donnell, the commission's executive director.
The difference in treatment of Young and Fulton is "bewildering," said Kathleen Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland.
"If we used the same standards we used two years ago in the Senator Young inquiry, then there should be an inquiry" of Fulton, she said. "The breaking of federal laws raises no ethical issues in the minds of the Maryland legislature? That's an extraordinary conclusion."
After Young's expulsion, he was indicted on corruption charges that were based on different allegations from those the Senate considered. After a two-week trial, Young was acquitted of all charges in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court in September. He now hosts a talk show on a Baltimore radio station.
Yesterday, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) said that Young received due process from the Senate and that Fulton's predicament was a different matter because he was criminally charged. Each legislative chamber "is the judge of its own membership," he said. "I'm certainly not going to second-guess the speaker."
In Wednesday's indictment, Evans and Fulton were charged with 11 counts of mail and wire fraud for allegedly trying to bilk some of the lobbyist's clients of $400,000.
The indictment says Fulton planned but never introduced legislation that would have hurt several of Evans's clients so that the lobbyist could bill the clients higher fees. In exchange, Evans helped Fulton, a real estate broker, receive a commission when the lobbyist bought a new building in Annapolis last year.
Through their attorneys, both men have said they are innocent and plan to begin work in Annapolis as scheduled next month.