Five years ago, when U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz upbraided Maryland politicians for creating and tolerating a "culture of corruption" in Annapolis, and sent the latest in a series of political insiders to prison, his remarks helped kindle a movement for reform.
In the ensuing years, the legislature passed a raft of laws aimed at reining in a free-spending culture where it once was routine, even expected, for lobbyists to hand their credit cards to lawmakers as they headed out after work to dine and drink.
As a candidate for governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) decried the cozy, one-party monopoly that he said had long allowed Democrats to protect dirty dealers from punishment and pledged that he would bring an end to the culture of corruption if elected.
Yet many believe that the indictment of former state senator Thomas L. Bromwell yesterday only thickens the fog of malfeasance that continues to hang over the Maryland capital.
Last year, Ehrlich's state police superintendent pleaded guilty to public corruption and tax charges for his conduct as Baltimore police commissioner. The governor's deputy chief of staff, Edward Miller, was questioned and is now said to be helping investigators in connection with the probe of Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. And this week, lawmakers hired a lawyer who specialized in investigations to delve into accusations that Ehrlich dispatched partisan loyalists to purge the state work force of political enemies -- a claim he has denied.
The Bromwell indictment charges racketeering and political corruption for activities that occurred several years ago, before Ehrlich took office. But the case could keep unsavory news about Annapolis in the headlines for months -- nothing unusual in a capital that has watched scandal claim governors, legislators and lobbyists.
"Many of these same characters are right back in the thick of things," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's), who has long been an advocate of reform.
"They're like moths to the flame," Pinsky said, referring to Gerard E. Evans and Bruce C. Bereano, Annapolis lobbyists who revived flourishing careers after fraud convictions. "The whole idea of cleaning up Annapolis was a sham."
James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said the new laws have made a difference in one respect -- they have driven illicit behavior further underground.
"I think there's now a fig leaf over some of the corruption," Browning said. "Where there was naked influence peddling before, it's a little more hidden now."
For example, he said, lawmakers have circumvented state campaign finance laws by routing contributions through political committees or accepting discreet corporate money for ventures that were once paid for with state funds, such as the hospitality tent the governor had at the Preakness two years ago.
"They're having to scramble more to keep this influence peddling under the radar," Browning said. "Is that progress?"
Paul E. Schurick, who is Ehrlich's communications director and has also served in a Democratic administration, disagreed, saying there has been progress.
Republican control of the governor's office, Schurick said, has curbed the kind of easy deal-making and horse-trading that used to typify business during the legislative session. "I think it's clearly better," Schurick said. "Annapolis has raised the ethical bar."
He has repeatedly dismissed the current investigation into Ehrlich's personnel practices as driven by partisanship.
State Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) said yesterday that he hopes there is no truth to the allegations against Bromwell and that any perception of Annapolis as a cauldron of corruption is waning.
"Because I don't think it's true," Frosh said. "I don't think corruption is endemic to the process in Annapolis at all. It's the exception, not the rule."
But Frosh believes promises to rout out corruption from the political process are probably disingenuous.
"I think that's a sad fact of human existence," he said. "I think the people in Annapolis are honest, hardworking and doing the best they can for their constituents. But I don't think you're ever going to stamp out dishonesty."