Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is pushing to toughen penalties for corruption after federal prosecutors last year nabbed two former state legislators and the former Baltimore mayor (herself a former lawmaker) — all three of them Democrats — for wrongdoing.
In Virginia, legislators are pushing to ban political powerhouse Dominion Energy from making campaign contributions after the electric utility reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in excess profits following a 2015 regulatory overhaul.
The battle against crooked politicians and campaign finance abuses never ends, for the simple reason that the officials empowered to prevent shady dealings are the very ones who stand to benefit from them.
Today, as in the past, the revelation of misconduct triggers public cries for change. But the danger is that a burst of activity will end up being just for show.
“To some degree, what happens after a scandal, people want to move the chairs around on the deck, and nothing really changes,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chairman of the judiciary and public safety committee.
Here are highlights of the state of play in each jurisdiction:
The Evans scandal has spawned a lot of proposals, many of which seem doomed to fail. As a minimum first step, there’s agreement on the need for more clarity and more aggressive enforcement of existing rules.
In particular, council members and ethics watchdogs said nobody is currently tasked with reviewing members’ financial disclosure forms to ensure they are complete and don’t raise red flags.
Evans’s violations might have been caught earlier had he disclosed individual clients of his consulting company. He says he wasn’t required to identify them, a defense that some dispute.
In any case, no official at the council, the Board of Government Ethics and Accountability or any other body was actively looking for potential problems. The ethics board’s director, Brent Wolfingbarger, resigned Dec. 31 after drawing criticism for the board’s failure to promptly investigate complaints.
“Essentially you have a situation where people are asked to file these reports, but what does that mean when nobody’s reviewing the reports?” said Dorothy Brizill, head of the watchdog organization D.C. Watch. “At some point, there has to be a sheriff in town, and right now, there isn’t one.”
D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson and council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) are among those calling for creation of an ethics committee within the council to enforce the rules.
“We should police ourselves,” Silverman said. “BEGA moves very slowly, and a council ethics committee could move with much more urgency, at least to do the investigative work.”
But others think a council committee would be cumbersome, and that a better path is to pressure the ethics board to be more aggressive. Council member Allen said both the ethics board and the Office of Campaign Finance needed to be more proactive.
“They have to ask questions. They have to make us nervous. I don’t think they make anybody nervous,” Allen said.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he was considering whether to require the general counsel to review disclosure statements. He also said the ethics board should “be a better cop, but of the gentle variety — nudging us, correcting us, guiding us.”
Other proposals would ban outside employment for council members, eliminate constituent services funds and tighten oversight of government contract awards. But such changes have been rejected in the past, and it’s not clear they would muster the necessary support today.
In just three months at the end of 2019, former Baltimore mayor Catherine E. Pugh and former delegate Tawanna P. Gaines (Prince George’s) pleaded guilty to federal charges, and former delegate Cheryl D. Glenn (Baltimore City) was indicted on charges of bribery and wire fraud.
Hogan cited those cases in proposing legislation to increase the maximum state monetary penalty for bribery from $10,000 to $100,000. His bill also would strip taxpayer-funded pensions from lawmakers convicted of taking bribes.
“A pervasive culture of corruption continues to exist, and it is clear that even tougher and more stringent laws are needed,” Hogan said.
Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said the Democratic-led legislature would probably “take some kind of action,” though Democrats have more than enough votes to block the governor’s proposal.
At the same time, Democratic legislators are paying close attention to a report in the Washington Monthly suggesting that Hogan has not recused himself sufficiently from decisions about road projects that could affect his business interests.
Hogan called the report “completely false.”
Antoine said Hogan “is in compliance with the law” and “is always disclosing these business dealings.” But, she added, “The concerns that the [Democratic] Party and public may have about whether he’s benefiting from these transportation policies are valid.”
Dominion is the state’s largest electric utility and biggest campaign donor, and it has often gotten its way in Richmond.
In one of the company's biggest victories, the General Assembly agreed in 2015 to freeze base electric rates and prevent the State Corporation Commission from ordering utilities to return excess profits to ratepayers. Since then, the commission has found that Dominion has overcharged customers by more than $1.3 billion.
Both Democrats and Republicans have backed Dominion in the past, but in recent election campaigns many Democrats — including those challenging sitting lawmakers — pledged to get tough with the company. One result could be passage of a bill sponsored by Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) to ban all campaign contributions from public interest corporations.
The senator has proposed similar measures in the past without success. He thinks the bill’s chances are better today.
“Dominion was giving millions of dollars in campaign contributions, and they were essentially writing the legislation on energy regulation,” Petersen said. “It’s gotten a lot of attention. Its time may be at hand.”