Landmark Ethics Bill Passes State Senate

by Alice Cherbonnier
       The State Senate has passed Senate Bill 75, called an “historic lobbyist ethics reform bill” by Common Cause/MD, a non-partisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that seeks, among other goals, campaign finance reform.

The new legislation expands the sanctioning powers of the State Ethics Commission, so it will be able to directly fire someone, or suspend or revoke privileges.

       “It’s a very good piece of legislation,” said Paul Rensted, acting executive director of Common Cause/MD. “And it will be the most comprehensive and strong lobbying law in the country.”

       The bill has four main objectives. It assures effective enforcement of its provisions by stipulating clear consequences for violations, and it applies its provisions to both the legislative and executive branches of state government. It provides for notice and disclosure of funds spent by regulated lobbyists on “special events,” and tightens requirements for disclosure of political contributions, both by lobbyists and their employers. Finally, it stipulates activities that are prohibited, such as lobbyists’ political fundraising and charitable fundraising on behalf of a public official.

       This bill follows the passage of a similar bill, HB2, by the House of Delegates.

       Though the passage of the laws in both houses signals almost certain inclusion of the objectives listed above, John O’Donnell, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, cautions that the law is not yet set in stone.

       “Basically, the House and the Senate have to pass each other’s bill,” he said, meaning there will be a conference committee of the two houses to decide what the final wording will be, and then both houses will have to approve it.

       Mr. O’Donnell, who has directed the Commission since it was established in 1979, explained that the new law takes the existing structure of the current State ethics laws regarding disclosure requirements and standards of conduct, and significantly extends the standards of conduct that lobbyists will be subject to. “It also expands the sanctioning powers of the Commission,” he said. “We’ll be able to directly fire someone, or suspend or revoke privileges.”

The State Ethics Commission
“They try really hard, given what they get in resources,” said Mr. Rensted. He said Common Cause/MD is lobbying Governor Glendening for more funding for the Commission, to ensure it can fulfill its extended role.

       “I’m not a big government spender,” agreed Mr. O’Donnell, “but we are under-funded. Since we began, we’ve been assigned more and more responsibilities. We have what’s called ‘mission creep’.”

       In the last fiscal year, he said, the Commission’s budget was $588,951; this July, it will increase to $608,000. He estimated that the Commission will need about $180,000 more to implement the new bill’s provisions. This would allow the hiring of “two-point-four” new employees to deal with electronic technology and oversight.

       Currently, the Commission is funded for a staff of seven-point-six, including a lawyer and an investigator. The staff serve the Commission, which is comprised of five commissioners who meet about once a month. One member is nominated by the President of the Maryland Senate and appointed by the Governor; another is nominated by the House Speaker and appointed by the Governor. The three others are appointed directly by the Governor, but one of the three must be a member of a political party other than that of the Governor.

       Currently, former Deputy Attorney General Charles Monk, a Republican who is local managing partner of the law firm of Saul Ewing Weinberg Green, chairs the Commission.

       The commissioners’ only payment is $100 per meeting. “That’s the same amount since 1979,” said Mr. O’Donnell. “They’re been treated to maybe three deli trays in the past 20 years.”

       Mr. O’Donnell said the Commission covers such persons as state employees, nonprofits, universities, and members of official boards and commissions, in addition to the lobbyists who might want to exert influence over these public servants. “That’s 100,000 warm bodies,” Mr. O’Donnell pointed out.

       There are separate ethics commissions for judicial, legislative, and local government functions.

How the Commission Works
The Commission receives formal and anonymous complaints, as well as requests for findings from its constituents. “We get 10,000 pieces regularly,” Mr. O’Donnell joked. “It used to be we had a little downtime in August, but now there’s a season for everything. August is the agency budget submission month.”

       “We keep a list for attention,” he said of informal complaints, “and the Commission decides if it will look into it.” When a complaint is formally sworn under oath, however, it must be investigated. “The test is: If it’s true, is it a violation of the law?” Mr. O’Donnell explained.

       Complaints or sworn statements—which do not need to be in any particular form except to be notarized—may be sent to the Commission at 300 East Joppa Road, Baltimore, MD 21286.

       This address may not be current much longer, as the Commission may be moving closer to Annapolis to be more easily accessible to legislators and reporters seeking information while the legislature is in session.

       The move may be coming as early as May. When it happens, Mr. O’Donnell doesn’t expect to be going to the state capital. After 32 years in state service, 22 of them directing the Commission, Mr. O’Donnell is going to retire.

Lobby Day is March 8
“Lobbyists” aren’t all fat cats doling out wads of cash. Many of them these days represent nonprofit organizations. One such group is Common Cause/MD, which will hold its annual Lobby Day on Thursday, March 8.

       In addition to working for the passage of the consolidated lobbyist ethics bill, Common Cause members will seek legislators’ support for public financing of state legislative campaigns; pre-session disclosure of legislators’ fundraising to include the weeks following the November 30 reporting date and the beginning of the legislative session in early January; lobbyist meal and gift disclosure that occurs out-of-state; and passage of an Open Meetings Act to allow public attendance of meetings of public/private agencies such as the Community Development Commission.

       For information about participating in the Common Cause Lobby Day, or to join the organization, call 269-6888.


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This story was published on February 28, 2001.