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Voters Yawn as Annapolis Soul-Searches Over Ethics

Tom Chalkley

By Van Smith | Posted 7/29/1998

Think for a moment about what's happened during the last four years of Maryland politics, ethicswise:

In 1995, Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening is sworn in as governor, but not before fixing the pension system in Prince George's so key staffers following him to Annapolis get a premium payoff from the county.

In 1996, Democratic fund-raiser Lalit Gadhia, Glendening's campaign treasurer, is convicted by the feds of political money laundering. In July, Joe DeFrancis, owner of Pimlico and Laurel racetracks, is fined $1,000 after pleading no contest to similar state charges. That same month Glendening flies to a $1,000-per-plate New York fund-raiser on a jet owned by a health-care company seeking a state contract. Also that year Baltimore shipping executive Brian Davis is indicted and convicted on tax and fraud charges, and in the process taints scores of political-campaign committees with his dirty money; Baltimore state Sen. John Pica, after belatedly disclosing he co-owned a sailing yacht with Davis, promptly steps down at the peak of his career, saying he wants to spend more time with his family.

In 1997, Baltimore state Sen. Larry Young is alleged to have enriched himself through his office.

In 1998, Young is expelled from the Senate at the recommendation of the the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics. Baltimore Del. Gerald Curran steps down as a wave of similar ethics allegations roll over him. Meanwhile the criminal investigations into Young's activities begin to look at the governor's office. Finally, as election season heats up, Glendening, after promising not to politicize the process of replacing longtime comptroller Louis Goldstein, appoints Michael Barnes, his campaign chairperson, to the post. The governor quickly backtracks--not because of the ethical questions raised by installing his campaign chief on the Board of Public Works, but to undo the political damage of his perceived slight of comptroller wannabe William Donald Schaefer.

Not a bad record for the state of Spiro Agnew and Marvin Mandel, ex-governors snared by the law. Or for Baltimore City, the political playground of former City Council President Wally Orlinsky, former state Sen. Clarence Mitchell III, and former city Comptroller Jacqueline McLean, all of whom were convicted of committing criminal misdeeds while in office. Baltimore kingmaker Irv Kovens (Schaefer's late political godfather), politically connected attorney Maurice Wyatt, politically connected contractor Buzz Berg, and former Public Works official Ottavio Grande, among many others, also did time for influence-peddling crimes. The colorful history goes back far, to 1895, when the corrupt political machine of Baltimore Democratic bosses Arthur Gorman and Freeman Rasin was tossed aside in an electoral backlash and Republicans won Maryland's governorship for the first time.

These infamous names are slowly fading from public memory. And the details of their crimes--not to mention such choice trivia as the fact that Mandel, in one of his first acts as governor in 1969, issued new ethics guidelines for the executive branch that he proceeded to trample over--are largely forgotten. But their contribution to a sad side of Maryland's political culture, in which poor ethical behavior by public officials tends to be all but expected and ultimately tolerated by the electorate, is lasting.

Thus we enter the 1998 election season during an historic low in the ethical tide for the General Assembly. Yet ethics barely shows up on the political radar screen. In March, the Schaefer Center on Public Policy released the results of its annual poll, an open-ended survey that asks voters to name the issues they care about most. The poll showed more than a dozen major concerns, topped by crime, education, jobs, and welfare reform, but ethics was nowhere to be seen. Even among the politically active, former state Sen. Julian Lapides notes, "'tsk, tsk' is the usual response" to scandals.

"It should be an issue," says Lapides, a Baltimore Democrat who co-chaired the ethics committee during his Annapolis tenure, "but I don't think it will be." Flareups of abuse of power confirm "the view that politicians are crooks and many people have just kind of given up . . . and turn[ed] off completely" from politics.

There are some exceptions. In the city's 45th Legislative District challengers have been focusing on allegations that two of the incumbents steered public funding to an east-side private development headed by a political crony (Campaign Beat, 7/22), a complaint that was dismissed July 22 by the legislative ethics committee. And 47 percent of 1,204 registered voters queried in a recent poll for The Sun agreed with the statement, "Parris Glendening's character and integrity concern me." And Lapides points out that "people were outraged" by Larry Young's ethical lapses. But in the overall scheme of things, ethics just isn't in the forefront of electoral concerns.

Annapolis, meanwhile, is busily soul-searching over both big-picture questions of ethics policy and unresolved allegations currently before the ethics committee. In the wake of the Young and Curran scandals, leaders in the state Senate and House of Delegates formed the Special Study Commission on Maryland Public Ethics Law, a body chaired by U.S. Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D-3rd District), that will propose changes to current statutes governing politicians' behavior. And as the Sept. 15 primary approaches, the ethics committee is quietly examining the allegations against the 45th District legislators as well as incumbents representing Prince George's County's 24th District.

The state's nonprofit ethics watchdog group, Common Cause-Maryland, is closely monitoring the Cardin panel's work. Kathleen Skullney, state Common Cause director, worries the public isn't focusing on what changes the commission will propose. Without public input, she says, "The commission is going to be able to say, 'The public doesn't care,' and things will continue as they are--a closed society of power, money, and influence, and if you are not in it, you are out of it. We, the public, are out of it." If there was ever a time for the public to get involved in the ethics issue, she says, "this is the year."

Skullney contends the commission's approach is skewed because it ignores what she says is "the premise of public ethics is all about"--that legislators "are accountable to the public for their use of the power. If you don't start out with that premise, how can you end up with a solution that is acceptable?"

The crux of the question is how the process of enforcing ethics regulations is viewed. The General Assembly traditionally has seen Article III, Section 19 of the Maryland Constitution as the premise for policing itself: "Each House shall be judge of the qualifications and elections of its members." Skullney prefers Article 6 of Maryland's Declaration of Rights (the state's version of the Bill of Rights), which says legislators are "Trustees of the Public, and, as such, accountable for their conduct: Wherefore, whenever the ends of Government are perverted . . . the People may, and of right ought, to reform the old."

To Skullney that means direct public involvement in enforcement of legislative ethics laws. But by taking the "judge of its members" clause as its premise for ethics-laws enforcement, she says, the legislature and Cardin's commission are presuming the public should only be let in on formal deliberations of ethics violations once they are over and ruled on.

This--as legislators are quick to point out--is to protect General Assembly members from public embarrassment caused by frivolous allegations. The law now allows the legislative body's presiding officers to establish procedures for investigative committees to follow--which at least leaves open the possibility of public involvement before a final ruling is made. (In theory, anyway; the Young and Curran probes were both held behind closed doors, as was the meeting at which the panel dismissed the complaint against 45th District Sen. Nathaniel McFadden and Del. Hattie Harrison, which stemmed from their sponsorship of bills providing funding for a development headed by Marie Washington, former head of McFadden's political organization. "[T]he issues raised [in the complaint] do not allege violation [of state ethics laws] that are within the jurisdiction of the joint committee," the panel's co-chairmen stated in letters to McFadden and Harrison. The laws bar legislators from using their offices for personal gain, as Young and Curran were alleged to have done, but do not address efforts to assist political supporters.) The Cardin commission's proposed reforms, unveiled July 21, would codify the proceedings' secrecy.

The current ethics debate further misses the point, Skullney argues, by focusing on reforming ethics laws. The problem, she says, isn't with the statutes themselves--in 1996 the Public Integrity Annual, a report issued by the Council of State Government and the American Society of Public Administrators, deemed Maryland's ethics laws among the nation's 10 toughest--but that "there's no will to enforce" them. For example, she contends Larry Young's fellow legislators knew for years about his business dealings, but did nothing until The Sun forced the issue by reporting on his activities. When the Young and Curran probes put them on the spot, legislators "blamed the law" rather than step up enforcement.

Meanwhile voter interest in ethics issues is likely to remain low "unless we get prosecutions and not just allegations" of violations, says Herb Smith, a political-science professor at Western Maryland College. Ethics and integrity have been raised on the campaign trail--Glendening's behavior was a major theme of Democrat Ray Schoenke's aborted campaign and remains prominent in Republican front-runner Ellen Sauerbrey's arsenal--but Smith says voter concern won't rise much unless corruption charges are brought against an elected official running for reelection. An indictment, he notes, "tends to ratchet up public awareness and public concern."

"It's still early," Smith adds. "The question is how much the Larry Young investigation could erupt in a prosecution--that would probably up the ante on the integrity issues."

The Special Study Commission on Maryland Public Ethics Laws will hold its first public hearing on its proposals Aug. 10 at 7 p.m. in the Lowe House Office Building in Annapolis. For more information call William Sommerville or Jeremy McCoy of the General Assembly's Department of Legislative Services, (410) 841-3870.

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